Federal Bureaucracy and the Price of Integrity

Talk about coincidence: just the other day, I was thinking of Paul Pillar, currently on the faculty at Georgetown University. He was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East during the run-up to the Iraq War. I was wondering what Pillar was doing now, and lo and behold the next day I see in the New York Times that he has a new book out, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: 9/11 and Misguided Intelligence Reform (Columbia University Press).

I haven't read Pillar's latest book, but I will. As a matter of fact, of the glut of books that examines U.S. foreign policy post-9/11, Pillar's book will probably be the only one that I will read.

In 2002-2003, I was working in OSD and was involved in the planning for the Iraq War. Even though I was in a policy position at the time, I worked closely with the intelligence staff at the Pentagon -- I was on a detail from my home office, after all, an intelligence agency -- and was aware of the intense pressure the administration was putting on the intelligence community to support its position.

Pillar was one of the very few people in the intelligence community willing to stand up to the pressure -- the bullying, really -- from the administration. He didn't act as though he believed he had a snowball's chance in hell to prevail, but he tried anyway, when other men would've capitulated or looked the other way. Like many people involved in the Iraq effort, I know what was going on, and I admired what Paul was doing tremendously.

He was, of course, forced to resign. I don't know the details, but you don't disagree with the office of the president and expect to keep your job, even if you're right. Even if you're only trying to do the thing you were hired for: to tell truth to power.

And what this means is that the government often loses exactly the people they need most to keep: the highly principled, the ones who try to ensure that our ideals aren't being compromised. The American people trust that the intelligence community will be self-policing, because so little true oversight is built into the system. But the people with the integrity to make sure we don't bow to political pressure are forced out by managers who do. It seems that in highly politicized times like these, we need more federal workers willing to tell truth to power, not fewer. It will be hard to find anyone willing to risk their necks when you see how others, like Pillar, were treated.