On Friday, Feb. 6, President George W. Bush announced the formation of an independent commission “to look at American intelligence capabilities, especially our intelligence about Weapons of Mass Destruction.” President Levin was one of seven people appointed to what will eventually be, at most, a nine-member body. Last Monday, the News’ View (“Levin brings smarts to intelligence committee,” 2/9) was thoughtlessly critical of the 20-plus students who protested his appointment and acceptance, and last Friday, Jamie Kirchick (“Levin appointment protests are baseless,” 2/13) was, at the least, equally critical of these “forces of campus cynicism.” It seems that neither Kirchick nor the author of the News’ View recognizes the establishment of this commission for what it is: yet another attempt by this administration to misdirect the public’s attention. By establishing a commission to investigate intelligence failures while the administration is under scrutiny for its justifications regarding the war on Iraq, it sidesteps the crucial issue of potentially having misled the public and reframes the debate.
It is the fundamental nature of the commission that disturbs me. There is nothing wrong with investigating “intelligence failures,” but there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that the Bush administration’s justifications for war were based, not on the best American intelligence, but on selected pieces of information taken out of context and intelligence shaped to fit pre-made policy decisions. At this time, the pressing question that the Bush White House ought to be facing up to is whether America went to war on the basis of failed intelligence or the administration’s failure to accurately represent available intelligence.
The conditions of this commission’s existence are much worse than “not optimal” — Kirchick’s description — they are intolerable. No matter how bipartisan the group is, no matter how qualified its members, it has been formed to look at the wrong issue. Kirchick asks, “Since when did this country abandon the principle of presumed innocence?” But to believe that this commission will be “trying” members of the Bush White House is to misunderstand it; the fundamental problem is that the commission cannot ask crucial questions about the administration’s handling or mishandling of intelligence information as a justification for war. To do so is outside its mandate.
These questions are of the utmost importance. The War on Terror is not like other wars. This is a war that could be used to justify pre-emptive wars, a war for which it is easy for those in power to feel that the ends justify the means, and a war with no end in sight. We do not know whether the current administration made policy decisions and later justified them with hyped intelligence. We do not know whether intelligence information was shaped to fit decisions that had already been made. But these are questions that must be asked; they are questions that this commission has been established to keep the public from asking and to keep Congress from investigating. There is a dangerous precedent being set here.
The misdirection must stop here. It is here that we must take stock of lessons learned, as Bush claims this commission will do, and make sure that intelligence is not being made a slave to policy. We must ensure that the American people are not bullied by the executive branch and that Americans are not going to war for reasons other than the reasons given.
I’ve heard students say that Levin would be crazy to pass up this appointment. Perhaps they’re right — serving on this commission is seen as serving the country and the News portrays protestors as misguided knee-jerk liberals. What I am sure of is that we, the students, ought to want Levin to pass this up; we would be crazy not to. I hope that most Yalies react to this, or any similar announcement, not with the knee-jerk appreciation that Kirchick wishes on us all, but with the sort of thinking that one ought to bring to the analysis of serious issues — with questions and doubts. This commission is high-profile and politically controversial. It is handicapped by its purposefully partial mandate.
Levin may have an open mind when it comes to the issues that the commission will directly address, but he has certainly taken a side in the debate about this commission and its purpose — and as he is Yale’s president, he represents the institution in any action he takes. Would it really have been so crazy for Levin not to have accepted this appointment?
What concerns me most deeply, though, is not Levin or the commission. It is what I have seen in this paper: vehement, unequivocal disparagement of the opposition to Levin’s acceptance. Most of all, I am disturbed by the overly harsh criticism expressed by the News’ View. Kirchick is concerned about Yale losing its luster through the loss of civility; I am horrified to observe Yale losing much more than its luster to silence, to knee-jerk acceptance and appreciation, and to the degradation of those who do have doubts. Our time is a troubled one: many are apathetic and many feel helpless. Our University president has accepted an appointment to a commission likely to stifle at least as many questions as it will answer, and America’s president has established such a commission. People should be encouraged to stand up. For the News’ View to so thoughtlessly criticize is the most unfortunate thing that it could do.