John Bolton Leads an Assault on the Truth
John Bolton is an unusual pick for Trump’s national security adviser. As a Bush administration alum, he, in as recently as 2016, said that he would “still overthrow Saddam Hussein” if he had known everything that he knows today. His sentiment betrays President Trump’s condemnation against the Iraq war, and his advocacy of regime change (and, by extension, nation-building) in Iran and a first strike against North Korea jeopardizes Trump’s promises to put “America First.”
Hawkishness, on its own, isn’t always disqualifying. We can take opinions seriously so long as they are grounded in some semblance of the truth. But as a public servant, Bolton has failed at even this basic standard: Bolton is a habitual liar and has repeatedly stretched the truth on basic facts throughout his career.
In May 2002, Bolton, as the undersecretary of state for arms control, drafted a speech stating that the U.S. believed that Cuba’s biological weapons program “is providing assistance to other rogue state programs.” Yet the language that best reflected the CIA’s judgments said that the U.S. believed that “Cuba has provided dual-use technology to other rogue states. We’re concerned that such technology could support B.W. programs in those states.”
The difference is subtle but critical in international diplomacy. By highlighting how Cuba has provided “dual-use technology” that “could support B.W. programs,” the CIA (i.e., the US government) recognized that it was not sure if the dual-use technologies—technology useful for both civilian and military purposes—actually helped or were even intended to help foreign bioweapons programs. Bolton’s phrasing, “is providing assistance to other rogue state programs,” implied that the US government believed that Cuba intentionally supported our adversaries’ weapons programs.
Had this disagreement been resolved civilly, this might not be a cause for concern. But Bolton reprimanded and tried to fire the intelligence analyst who revised his speech—the very one who tried to tell him the truth so that Bolton could best represent the U.S. government.
Consider how Bolton might talk on this issue if he, and the intelligence community, used the same respective language for a hypothetical incident regarding Iran. The intelligence community might describe Iran’s export of medical isotope technologies used to diagnose cancer as something that could, but might not assist North Korea’s nuclear program. Bolton would instead condemn Iran as an axis of evil and essentially convey that Iran is assisting North Korea in nuclear weapons technology. The intelligence community issued a cautious warning of danger: Bolton called for war.
Other rumblings among U.S. government officials suggest that Bolton has repeatedly played fast and loose with the truth at the State Department. Greg Thielmann, a top official at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) in the early 2000s, said that just before the war in Iraq, “Bolton seemed to be troubled because INR was not telling him what he wanted to hear.” He soon “surrounded himself with a hand-chosen group of loyalists” to analyze raw intelligence on Iraq without input from the intelligence community itself. He even later allegedly blocked Secretary of State Colin Powell from receiving vital information on Iran in 2003.
Fast forward to the 2016 election, and Bolton’s assertions have become unhinged, leaning further into absurdity than the most volatile pundits venture. In December 2016, he called Russia’s election interference a “false flag” operation conducted by the Obama administration. Let’s remember that this lie has never been corroborated and is in spite of the intelligence community’s and Republican House Intelligence Committee’s recognition of Russian interference.
When our norms are repeatedly being stretched and twisted, we must at least be able to keep the truth sacred. If we don’t, no country will be able to take our side whether or not we go to war with North Korea or anywhere else. Our ability to negotiate better deals for Americans will be forever hamstrung by liars in the administration.
Both President Trump’s supporters and detractors should want for him to receive wise counsel grounded in honesty and evidence. Bolton, however, has shown that his advice is grounded in neither of these things and that he will regularly distort the truth for his self-serving purposes. He only has the capacity to serve his lies and ideology, not the American people he will swear to defend.