PHILADELPHIA - The juxtaposition of two political bombshells in Washington last week was dizzying.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent the controversial nomination of John R. Bolton for U.N. ambassador to the full Senate. Meantime, America's spy agencies disagreed over whether North Korea is planning to make more nuclear bombs or to conduct its first nuclear test.
What's the connection? A man known for politicizing intelligence about "rogue" states is being pushed by the White House toward another high post, even as the North Korean situation reminds us how little we know of that country. The last thing the United States needs is political twisting of intelligence on "axis of evil" countries such as Iran or North Korea. The Iraq intelligence debacle should have taught that lesson.
Yet the White House is relentlessly pushing the Bolton nomination. Why? A stream of witnesses, including senior Republican appointees and top intelligence officials, told Senate staffers how Mr. Bolton tried to pressure intelligence analysts who disagreed with his conclusions - on Cuba, Syria and other issues. If the analysts refused, Mr. Bolton tried to get them removed from their posts.
This wasn't a case of a man who challenged analysts to think outside the box. Mr. Bolton wanted intelligence analysts to endorse his views that Cuba and Syria had far more advanced nonconventional weapons programs than the evidence showed.
Robert L. Hutchings, the former chairman of the government's National Intelligence Council, explained Mr. Bolton's technique to Senate staffers: "I wouldn't say he was making up facts. Let's say that he took isolated facts and made much more of them to build a case than I thought the intelligence warranted. It was a sort of cherry-picking of little factoids ... that were drawn out to present the starkest possible case."
At a time when America's intelligence agencies are struggling to improve their product, the promotion of someone who twists the intelligence sends bleak signals. Why bother with a massive reform of intelligence agencies if you reward those who politicize the result?
The Bolton nomination is a bracing reminder of something the administration has never admitted: The huge intelligence failure on Iraq was due as much to politicization of intel as to intelligence gaps.
Indeed, the Pentagon set up a Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group, a rotating two-person office tasked with looking at raw CIA and other intelligence data to find links between state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iraq, and terrorist groups.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with such an idea. In practice, the group aimed to convince top administration officials there was an operational link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. Such a link remains unproven. But because of constant official repetition, a huge percentage of Americans became convinced it existed.
Rather than encourage alternative views from intelligence analysts, the Bolton approach was to suppress them in favor of his own. The risk of this was laid out bluntly to me by Wayne White, head of the State Department's Iraq intelligence team from 2003 to March 2005: "When political spin and hype is allowed to enter the intelligence stream, we take the first step down the road to policy failure."
In the cases of North Korea and Iran, where some Bush administration officials seek regime change, the intelligence on nuclear weapons programs is opaque. It must be carefully analyzed. Cherry-picking is highly risky and could lead to grave mistakes.
But if there is a case to be made about Iranian or North Korean nuclear programs at the U.N. Security Council, Mr. Bolton is surely the worst person to make it. Who will believe him? Mr. Bolton has become synonymous with the Bush team's willingness to twist intelligence for political ends.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.