On an overcast and chilly late afternoon last February, CIA Director William Burns went to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service to receive an award. After a few brief and typically gracious remarks, he sat for a few questions, the first of which prompted him to launch into a virtual tour d’horizon on the world’s trouble spots and the role of U.S. diplomats and, of course, the CIA in advising U.S. policy makers.
“It’s an overused term, but it’s extremely important, especially in my current role, to speak truth to power,” he said. “It’s true for diplomats, it’s certainly true for intelligence officers.”
“We are at CIA, an apolitical institution,” he went on. “What we owe the president—and he’s been very clear with me—this is what he expects is our straight honest analysis and insights, without a whiff of politics or partisan agenda to it as well. And you know, we’ve learned over the years, not just at CIA, but at state, we get ourselves in a lot of trouble as agencies and as a country when we don’t pay attention to that basic fact. So that’s something we take very seriously as well…”
It’s a theme that apparently nags at Burns, a highly regarded former diplomat who has spent a lot of his career dealing with the Middle East. In an extraordinary 2019 memoir, he castigated himself for not speaking up forcefully to George W. Bush administration figures on the folly of invading Iraq in search of nonexistent WMD.
“It’s a story of my own failure to do more to prevent a war that we did not need to fight,” he wrote in The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal. “Years later, that remains my biggest professional regret.”
Such a mea culpa alone, unique in Washington on any issue but particularly among those who engineered the Iraq disaster, moved me to enthusiastically welcome his appointment as CIA director in 2021.
Telling truth to power—what a concept.
Two years later, we’re reeling from the shock of Hamas’s “surprise” rampage in Israel. The instant consensus was that the savage Hamas campaign, which saw the murder of some 1,400 Israeli civilians and the kidnapping of over 200 more, was not just a massive intelligence failure on Israel’s part, but also ours.
“U.S. intelligence agencies all but stopped spying on Hamas and other violent Palestinian groups in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., instead directing resources to the hunt for the leaders of al Qaeda and, later, Islamic State, according to U.S. officials familiar with the shift,” the Wall Street Journal’s Warren P. Strobel reported by way of explanation this past week.
Resources had been shifted to major targets of more direct interest to U.S. national security, sources told Strobel. “There’s a really hard prioritization exercise that has to go on,” a former counterterrorism official said. “The reality is that you don’t have collection resources that you can exploit all over the world.”
U.S. intelligence sublet spying on Palestinian terror groups to the Israelis, it seems—a “liaison” arrangement that has proven troublesome to the CIA elsewhere.
But wait, U.S. intelligence officials rushed to tell the New York Times: On Sept. 28 the CIA issued a report that “described the possibility that Hamas would launch rockets into Israel over a period of several days.” A second report on Oct. 5, which “built on the first but was more analytical…appeared in a daily CIA summary of intelligence that is distributed widely to policymakers and lawmakers, the officials said.”
Pretty weak sauce. Not only that, “intelligence officials did not brief either of the reports to President Biden or senior White House officials,” The Times added. “Nor did the CIA highlight the reports to White House policymakers as being of particular significance, officials said.”
All this took me back to Bill Burns and his account of how he and his fellow Iraq-invasion skeptics in the State Department essentially gave up on trying to stop the war machine.
“In the end, we pulled some punches, persuading ourselves that we’d never get a hearing for our concerns beyond the secretary if we simply threw ourselves on the track,” he’d written.
At the CIA, Director George Tenet did pretty much the same: The White House was intent on invading, so why commit career suicide? “Slam dunk,” he famously uttered. His 1960s-era predecessor Richard Helms did much the same, rolling over for the White House and Pentagon hawks on Vietnam, even as his own analysts told him the military’s war was a loser.
I’m wondering if, in recent months, much the same dynamic was at work in regard to the simmering Palestinians, whose dignity and lives prior to Oct. 7 were under escalating assault daily by the Israeli settlers and far-right regime of Benjamin Netanyahu. In his Georgetown remarks last February, Burns “recalled his role as a senior diplomat two decades ago during the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada,” the Times reported last week. “What we’re seeing today has a very unhappy resemblance to some of those realities that we saw then too,” he said.
Actually, what he added, according to the video anyone can see, was that “the conversations I had with Israeli and Palestinian leaders left me quite concerned about the prospects for even greater fragility and even greater violence between Israelis and Palestinians as well.”