Generations of college freshmen have puzzled over the ancient notion of the “noble lie.” “If anyone at all is to have the privilege of lying,” Socrates suggests in Plato’s Republic, “the rulers of the state should be the persons; and they, in their dealings either with enemies or with their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good” (No. 389). Scholars doubt that Plato, writing four centuries before the time of Christ, intended to affirm that a political elite was entitled to lie for reasons of state, but one of Plato’s 20th-century interpreters appears to have read him just that way. Leo Strauss, who for many years taught an esoteric reading of Plato at the University of Chicago, believed that an educated elite could rule through deception. A circle of his former students, now in appointed public office, are in a position to make Strauss’s teaching national practice.
It can be risky and unfair to attribute to students the views of their master, but numerous published profiles of the “defense intellectuals” who are now making U.S. foreign military policy have argued that case. Among Strauss’s alumni are Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, and I. Lewis Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. What makes their intellectual lineage a matter of public concern is that their fear-mongering about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was the centerpiece of the administration’s case for going to war. Now that Saddam Hussein has been defeated and hardly a trace of those weapons can be found, questions are arising about the quality of U.S. intelligence, its possible abuse by the administration and the Straussian attitude toward government that may underlie the whole debacle.
Veteran intelligence analysts chronically complain about politicians’ abuse of intelligence data. To the political class, intelligence has been less useful for informing policy than for selling it. To promote costly weapons purchases, troop deployments and weapons transfers, U.S. administrations have turned intelligence into propaganda. What is appalling in the case of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction is the disparity between the utter confidence the Bush and Blair administrations exhibited in making the case against Iraq and the astonishingly meager evidence of the presence of weapons stockpiles, even after two months of intensive searches.
The most egregious delict seems to have been the seriousness with which the political echelons in both Great Britain and the United States trumpeted reports about Iraqi nuclear weapons development and Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda, reports that intelligence analysts had already discounted as false or unsubstantiated. This cries out for investigation, as do the revised estimates made by a new team set up in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which was supposed to review data others might have missed. Intelligence assessments in which highly qualified judgments were made to appear certain also demand examination. Finally, the post-Sept. 11 approach to security, which is said to have set a lower threshold for the evidentiary weight of intelligence data, needs to be evaluated as well.
Congress has begun to study the problem. But Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, and Representative Porter Goss, Republican of Florida, have decided not to hold public hearings until after their respective committees have secretly examined the matter. Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, has been calling for bipartisan decision-making on how to proceed. Given the apparent scope of the misjudgments and/or misstatements about the missing weapons of mass destruction and the extent of high-level involvement, bipartisan Congressional decision-making is the least that should be done to retrieve the government’s credibility.
Above and beyond the question of U.S. credibility and the gathering, interpretation and use of intelligence looms a larger issue. Have people come to power who believe that leaders may lie in what they regard as the national interest? If it turns out they overestimated the Iraqi threat and hyped the war, it will not be the first time Mr. Wolfowitz, Mr. Perle and their company have done so. During the cold war, on more than one occasion they misjudged the Soviet threat. If they do believe that they know better than Congress and an informed public, how is democratic government to be protected from what British M.P. Claire Short kindly calls “an honorable deception”?
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? asked the Roman poet Juvenal. “Who will guard the guardians?” Senator Levin’s proposal for bipartisan direction of the investigation is a first step. It is the very minimum a free people can expect from their elected representatives when there is suspicion that appointed officials have acted out of a belief in their right to govern by deception. Ultimately, only public hearings will reveal whether key figures in the government have been duplicitous, incompetent or perhaps both.