The soap opera hearings over the president's nomination of John Bolton as U.N. ambassador have had an unintended effect, bolstering what half a dozen investigations of pre-9/11 intelligence failures couldn't prove: an atmosphere in the White House that pushed spies to bend their conclusions to political ends.
It's true that Bolton's may be the only publicly detailed example of these pressure tactics. Also, his attempts to punish or fire intelligence analysts who balked at his assertions about bioweapon projects in Cuba were unsuccessful. It is also true that in the end, Bolton's Cuba assertions, as well as his exaggerations of Syrian nuclear capabilities, were toned down. Why, then, does his case still tend to prove White House pressures?
Bolton, an assistant secretary of State, was subject to the caution and apparent personal dislike of then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Had he been speaking for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, or on behalf of Vice President Dick Cheney, the pressure would probably have been more successful.
The most important piece of the puzzle, though, is the White House's strong defense of Bolton. "[H]e is someone who has a long record of results in getting things done," said a presidential spokesman last week. "And sometimes you get people mad at you when you get things done. But we believe he's a very capable individual and will do an outstanding job at the United Nations."
All three sentences praise Bolton's style and record. That means behavior like Bolton's must be regarded as not just normal but desirable by the White House. Cheney made a similar defense earlier this week.
Behaving like a boor and a bully is not so rare in government. Using threats to twist the conclusions of career intelligence analysts ought to be. But if Bolton is so admired in the house where the buck stops, it is impossible to believe that he's the only practitioner.