Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Rise of Thomas Fingar

Another sign that the neo-cons are out of favor and Condi Rice is introducing her particular brand of foreign policy professionalism to the Bush administration is the rise of Thomas Fingar.

Fingar is now the top intelligence analyst at John Negroponte’s ODNI (Office of the Director of National Intelligence).

He’s a veteran of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research—the State Department shop heralded as the little analytical engine that could, guys who got things right while everybody else got it wrong on the Soviet military buildup, the Iraq nuclear program, and, most famously, those aluminum tubes that the CIA was determined to morph from rocket components into Saddam’s centrifuges for uranium enrichment.

From Justin Rood’s admiring profile in the Washington Monthly of the virtues of INR--and Thomas Fingar:

The NRI has a unique mindset… The State Department's staffers, by virtue of their responsibilities, simply must be open to the points of view of the countries with which they conduct daily diplomacy. There is an inherent tension within the State Department between cooperating with the White House and coordinating with the rest of the world. That tension creates a market within the department for objective analysis, a need for an honest broker. "This building understands we're useless if we're not objective," Fingar told me. "If you want an echo, close your door. Or sing in the shower."

This kind of attitude has caused some anguished gear grinding from Foggy-Bottom despising conservatives like Frank Gaffney, Rood reported:

In The Washington Times in August 2003, former Reagan White House official Frank Gaffney Jr. lamented the purported bias of INR's career civil servant experts. "This bureau's intelligence products have tended to reflect the policy predilections of State's permanent bureaucracy, rather than the facts."

Rood goes on to say:

But there's a simple bottom-line test for intelligence: Who called it right most often? And on the big questions, INR has consistently gotten right what other agencies have gotten wrong.

Fingar and his ex-boss at INR, Carl Ford, have been in the news since one of their analysts, Christian Westermann, had the temerity to comment “do not concur” on some extravagant claims about Cuban bioweapons programs that John Bolton wanted to include in a speech.

Fingar took the heat, as the Washington Note reported:

Mr. Fingar: "[An angry Bolton told me] That he was the President's appointee, that he had every right to say what he believed, that he wasn't going to be told what he could say by a mid-level INR munchkin analyst." Fingar interview, p. 10, lines 12-15.

and managed to insulate Westermann from Bolton’s volcanic wrath.

In an interesting sign of the state of foreign affairs in the second Bush administration, Fingar seems to be on the way up and Bolton is still not assured of emerging from the confirmation meatgrinder with enough votes to drag his tattered and humiliated carcass to the UN.

Fingar interests China Matters because he is also a China hand, a Mandarin speaker with a polysci degree from Stanford who has served in China-related functions at State since the 1980s.

Now, Fingar has not only successfully made the jump from the State Department—the nest of appeasing bureaucrats despised by the GOP right—to the ODNI, shop of that gentleman with impeccable death squad credentials—John Negroponte.

Fingar is now the keeper of the nation’s intelligence crown jewels, charged with “governance” of the President’s Daily Brief.

As you recall, the daily intelligence brief used to be delivered by the CIA’s George Tenet and is used to set the table for whatever agenda the foreign policy establishment wishes to promote to our CEO president.

It sometimes also performs the underappreciated function of providing warnings that terrorists are planning to fly jetliners into US office buildings.

The fact that a China hand, an opponent of the neo-cons, and a respected intelligence analyst is going to have Bush’s ear every morning is, to say the least, interesting.

One can envision him as Condi’s last line of defense, deploying the weapons of data, logic, and probability, and common sense against Dick Cheney’s relentless effort to stampede the President by invoking every worst-case scenario known to man.

So Condi has succeeded in purging the neo-cons and putting her State Department and academic technocrats in the top spots, close to the President’s ear.

A few highly experienced guys and gals will serve as gatekeepers, keeping the cherrypickers, Cheney hawks, and neocon nutbars from driving the foreign policy agenda with stovepiped intel. If anything, the elite is supposed to stovepipe guidelines down to the grunts, instead of the other way around.

I think Condi Rice has taken the risky step of assuming that she can orchestrate the proper gathering and processing of intelligence from the top down. This may indeed insulate the top decision-making apparatus from the neo-con schemes to short-circuit the policy process.

However, Condi has previously shown that, although she is adept at winning the president’s support and committed to enabling his agenda, her record in the first Bush administration as a hands-on manager has been disastrous.

Case in point is the Iraq Stabilization Group she headed (and whose dissolution, I believe, has never been announced). You remember that, don’t you? Condi was supposed to get her arms around that little situation we had in Iraq and make it all better. Surely you remember.

And Miss “I believe the title was ‘Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States’” hasn’t shown herself a reliable steward of our critical intelligence functions, either.

So the idea that her leadership can amputate a dysfunctional body of analysts and ideologues from the rational Condi-brain that effectively gathers, sifts, and analyzes the critical intel, is open to question.

And if the ODNI is her chosen instrument for transforming the way the U.S. government handles intelligence, her apparently limited managerial and leadership powers are going to be tested to the utmost.

The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus recently reported on the state of the ODNI:

"This is an evolving process," the senior intelligence official told reporters who attended the briefing on the condition on anonymity. "We are moving from chalk to paper," he said, adding that should indicate things were far from final. The hastily drafted and approved legislation that established the DNI and his office last December represented a series of compromises between Congress and the White House. Those agreements have left room for Negroponte and his staff to establish what may be the standard structure for DNIs in the future.

"We are spending a lot of time searching for good people, and it is imperative we get the right people for these jobs," Negroponte said in a statement released yesterday.

The DNI is also setting up a 24-hour watch to keep Negroponte and Hayden informed of any sudden changes in intelligence. This office, with a handful of employees, will be located with another DNI entity, the National Counterterrorism Center, which occupies its own building in Northern Virginia.

An uncharitable reading would be that the effort is ad hoc, understaffed, behind the curve, and God help us, the ODNI is responsible for the President’s Daily Brief and they haven’t gone to 24-hour operation yet?

Best of luck, Thomas Fingar.


Stygius said...

Since ODNI is not Condi Rice's shop, obviously, I don't understand why you are blowing a lot of incense her way just because Negroponte was smart enough to get Fingar.

China Hand said...

Your skepticism is understandable. I have a Condi-centric view of Bush's second-term foreign policy, to be sure. And I also tend to view a Stanford connection (which Fingar has) as an indicator of being in the Rice camp. Could be wrong, of course. Negroponte possesses inimidating bureaucratic heft. But the kind of guy who slogs off loyally to put in time as Ambassador to the UN and Ambassador to Iraq strikes me as a foreign policy apparatchik, not architect. I see national security as Condi's world and I am assuming that she would make sure that the guy controlling the PDB would be her guy. And I see much of the national security spin and appointments coming out of the Bush administration, with a non-ideological, academic/Stanford veneer,as pure Condi. For your amusement, you can read an earlier post What Would Bismarck Do? in which Bush unexpectedly declares he is channeling the spirit of the Iron Chancellor:

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