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Rein in the Political Yes Men, Yes Women and Yes Generals

by Elizabeth Sullivan

Leave aside for a moment that Congress had to order the CIA to make public its 2-year-old insider report on sweeping leadership failures. The gist of the report -- whose specific findings on George Tenet's slam-dunk deficiencies were released this week -- was well known to anyone paying even half attention.

For the former director of national intelligence was just one of a chorus of yes men and yes women who helped set a credulous president and the nation on course for a dangerously misguided war. Mirroring Tenet's failures were go-along generals at the Pentagon and 77 senators and 296 members of the House who voted a blank check for pre-emptive war without checking the fine print.

Even today, with the full outlines of the debacle now clear, few feel the tug of accountability. Sen. Hillary Clinton, who voted for the Iraq war, is the Democratic front-runner for president. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, of Cleveland, who not only voted "nay" but routinely defies the popular view on the foreign villain of the moment, remains an also-ran.

Apparently, it's sufficient to say the war was handled badly and needs to end, eventually. The fine print still goes in the circular file.

Of course, few of the go-alongs-to-get-alongs can equal Tenet for chutzpah.

Tenet told CBS earlier this year -- during yet another sales pitch (for his book, this time) -- that his "slam-dunk" comment to President Bush about Iraq referred not to Saddam's weapons, the war's winnability or intelligence findings, but to refining the sales pitch.

Still, the fine print of the CIA inspector general's executive summary does reveal something: the betrayal of the team of CIA officers who prepared much of the report.

They asked for accountability for the lip service that didn't match either the policy planning or spending priorities. They got zilch.

Two different CIA chiefs now have whiffed, absolving Tenet and other senior CIA officials not just of culpability but of the dual scrutiny that requested disciplinary and follow-up reviews would entail.

It's an explicit rebuke to agency employees who put their careers on the line with pointed critiques of a CIA chief who worked harder at improving CIA morale and his personal relationship with the president than at perfecting what the agency does.

Current CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden says it's all about moving forward and not groveling in the dirt of the past. In a statement to CIA staff Tuesday, the day the report became public, Hayden says he sees no reason to punish folks who didn't mean to mess up and who faced a new type of enemy. Let's internalize these lessons and move on, he adds.

Yet what lessons would those be, exactly? Moving on without assigning responsibility means not learning the lessons.

Apparently, it was OK, prior to 9/11, for Tenet to testify to Congress, tell the American public and proselytize foreign intelligence agencies that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida were America's No. 1 strategic threats and yet do nothing about creating a strategic plan against them. Apparently, it was all right for Tenet to lobby for more money for counterterrorism efforts, but then leave chronically underfunded the agency's primary group hunting bin Laden.

These are failures that go well beyond the George W. Bush administration, deep into the Clinton years -- failures that still incubate a "yes" mentality that guides the Iraq debacle.

It has long been a tenet of Pentagon war-gaming that numbers count, rigorous and honest after-action reviews of what went wrong in prior wars count, ongoing studies, smart generals and tough non-commissioned officers keeping the generals honest count.

But in the Iraq war, none of these has counted, when they should have meant the most.

A 1998 war plan for Iraq envisioned 380,000 invasion troops. The Bosnia and Kosovo occupation models suggested that 470,000 was more realistic. Yet when war came, the Army marched in "with less than half the strength required to win," writes senior Army officer, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, whose point-blank critique of political generals in the Armed Forces Journal this year still has the military buzzing -- both about Yingling's daring and his foolhardiness.

Yet it shouldn't be foolhardy to be right. A strong institution can take criticism. That's why the CIA -- and the Army -- need to circle back and take another look not just at what went wrong, but at what is still going wrong, in speaking truth to power.

Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages. To reach Elizabeth Sullivan: bsullivan@plaind.com, 216-999-6153

© 2007 The Plain Dealer

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