Legitimate Intelligence

Michael Tomasky on How John McCain Humiliated Himself on Susan Rice

Will John McCain apologize for his reckless crusade against Susan Rice? Don’t bet on it.

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We don’t yet really know as a society what a person has to do to completely and utterly cancel out a record of war heroism, but we may be about to find out. If this CBS News report is even close to accurate, John McCain’s arguments of the last few weeks about Susan Rice are thrashingly demolished. He has, or should have, zero credibility now on this issue. It will be fascinating to see if he emerges from the holiday weekend subtly chastened, attempting to shift gears a bit, or whether he keeps the pedal to the paranoid metal. He’s getting toward the sunset of what was once a reasonably distinguished career, a career (if we count his time in Vietnam) that began in the highest honor and has now descended into the darkest farce.

The CBS report found the following. It was the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that took the words “al Qaeda” and “terrorism” out of Rice’s talking points for those Sept. 16 talk shows. It found also that both the CIA and the FBI approved of these edits, following standard operating procedure. The report states emphatically: “The White House or State Department did not make those changes.” One source told the network’s Margaret Brennan that the controversy over the word choice employed by Rice has come to the intel world as “a bit of a surprise.” Another source said that there were “legitimate intelligence and legal issues to consider, as is almost always the case when explaining classified assessments publicly.”

There’s one bit of irony introduced to the saga by all these details, which is that this report crystallizes the fact that Rice did indeed hide some information from the public on Sept. 16—but it’s the kind of information that has always been concealed from public consumption, for the kinds of national-security-related reasons that the Washington establishment has always agreed upon. Historically, of course, if any person or persons have objected to this kind of filtering, they’ve typically been on the left. Think Daniel Ellsberg first and foremost. The right always defended this practice, on the grounds that making possibly sensitive information public too soon without the proper running of all the intelligence traps could only provide aid and comfort to the commies or the terrorists, as the case may be.

McCain certainly comes from this school. But this, you see, was different. Different from what, and different how, are both good questions. Different from those dozen or so attacks on American embassies while George W. Bush was president? It’s true that no Americans died in those raids, let alone an ambassador, and that obviously does raise the stakes. But it hardly means that our intelligence agencies should alter their procedures to meet the political demands of one party, or one senator, or one cable “news” channel. If anything, it means dramatically the opposite, and one has no trouble at all picturing, if Benghazi had happened in the heat of a presidential campaign in which a Republican president was seeking reelection, an unctuous McCain standing before the cameras and lambasting Democrats in highly moralistic language for politicizing such a sensitive tragedy.

Well, live by the moral sword, die by it. In the same way conservatives couldn’t see that Mitt Romney was going to lose because they believed only themselves and their own self-reinforcing propaganda, I think McCain probably isn’t aware right now of what a joke he’s becoming. He probably only goes to constituent meetings where they cheer on his desperate antics. I notice from cruising the Arizona papers that they’re not really laying into him yet—just a few guarded criticisms and expressions of disappointment in the letter columns and such. Most importantly of all, establishment Washington has adored him. As long as those shields are there, he can ignore people like me and the MSNBC crowd.

But how long will they be there? McCain, because of what he endured 45 years ago, is permitted more than three strikes. But how many more? In 2008, he foisted Sarah Palin upon an unsuspecting nation. After losing that race, he then turned his back on legislating as he faced a primary challenge from his right in 2010, switching from being one of the few senators who actually took his work seriously enough to try to be a leader on compromise to becoming one of the body’s chief obstructionists and windbags across a range of issues. And now, 2012, has found him slandering his country’s ambassador to the United Nations on the basis of no evidence, creating circumstances that have forced U.S. intelligence agencies to defend their usually private methods in public, and of course laid the groundwork for future and wholly spurious impeachment proceedings. So this last one alone is three strikes, plus probably a couple others I’m not remembering.

McCain is maybe entitled to four or five strikes. But not six or seven. Will he stand down now from this embarrassing crusade? A McCain of a few years ago might have been capable of acknowledging error and saying that if Rice is nominated to be secretary of state, he is now prepared to confirm her, provided she addresses certain concerns to his satisfaction at her hearings. Can today’s McCain do any such thing?

And will tomorrow’s McCain go back to endorsing bipartisan immigration reform? With Republicans rushing to adopt this position, one would think that it would be a natural for McCain—to become, as he was in 2005, the lead Republican on any such legislation. But is he even interested in that anymore? Once you’ve hopped on the Crooked Talk Express, detraining isn’t easy.