ON THE FRIDAY BEFORE THANKSGIVING, Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, said CIA officials had given him "carte blanche" to attack President Bush anonymously last summer in publicity interviews for his book Imperial Hubris. Specifically, Scheuer said, former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow had told him "We're giving you carte blanche" to do whatever interviews he wanted, as long as the criticism in those interviews was directed toward Bush, not the CIA. Scheuer didn't follow the rules. He took on senior CIA officials in his publicity interviews. As a result, he said, he was "muzzled."
Last week Harlow stepped forward to challenge Scheuer's claim. "His assertion that I gave him 'carte blanche' to attack the president is absurd," Harlow told me in an email. And he continued:
Even [Scheuer] seems to have recognized that, since he was subsequently quoted in the Washington Post on November 2 as saying I told him in July to stop his incessant media commentary saying, "This is affecting the president, you're getting involved in the election. The agency is being interpreted as not being evenhanded" and also saying (quite accurately for once) that I told him some of his comments quoted in the media were "inappropriate for a currently serving intelligence officer."
Harlow is right to say that Scheuer has changed his story. Read Dana Priest's article, "Bringing Change, Not by the Book; CIA Officials Let Critic Publish," and you find a different version of events than that which Scheuer told reporters on November 19. Here's the key paragraph:
But two former CIA officials and the author himself said four top managers at the agency, not including Tenet, made the decision to let "Anonymous" publish and give interviews. The officials said they did so only because they feared that the author would resign, earning even more attention for a work they viewed as partly ludicrous. They said the agency underestimated how the book would play in the presidential campaign.
Harlow, who, in all likelihood, is one of the "former CIA officials" quoted on background in Priest's story, repeated this version of events in his email. "His supervisors (not I) reluctantly permitted him to publish his book anonymously," he wrote. "In part because Agency regulations which [are] clear on preventing unauthorized disclosure of classified information . . . are not so clear on preventing expression of opinion."
"As the case in his first book," Harlow continued, "Scheuer was allowed to do interviews about his book. But when it became clear that he had gone well beyond that" and "had begun pontificating on areas that are clearly inappropriate for currently serving intelligence officers" Scheuer "was told he should not do that." But remember: The book that Scheuer was allowed to do interviews about was . . . well, a harsh indictment of American foreign policy and the current president. If Harlow is right, then CIA management still knew exactly what it was doing when it "reluctantly permitted" the publication of Imperial Hubris.
Little about this story makes sense. Here, for example, is what one former senior CIA official told THE WEEKLY STANDARD several weeks ago:
No one I know of at the Agency was happy about what [Scheuer] was saying and doing. His seniors tried and failed to manage him. It was believed that perhaps he could anonymously blow off steam without being turned into a celebrity whistle-blower. Some believed, naively, that the media would actually read some of Scheuer's wacky rantings (e.g. "American soldiers are paid to die" or his laudatory comments about [Osama bin Laden]) and dismiss him as a crank.
But such an explanation only raises more questions. For one: Why would the CIA have a "crank" on its payroll? For another: How did a "crank" who was prone to "wacky rantings" and needed to "blow off steam" become the head of the CIA bin Laden unit, and then maintain that position from 1996 until 1999? And finally: Why must the CIA rely on media outlets to "dismiss" its own employees?