The Big Sleep
By David Brooks
The New York Times
There once was a British aristocrat who had a nightmare that he was giving an extremely boring speech in the House of Lords. Then he awoke and discovered that indeed he was giving an extremely boring speech in the House of Lords.
If that dull aristocrat had proceeded to perish; if his corporeal remains had been reduced to ash; if these remains had been entombed in an impermeable case and placed in an empty, changeless landscape, he still could not have approached the tedium achieved by the Michael Hayden hearings before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week.
These hearings were the dullest event in the history of the universe since the creation of sedimentary rock. They were the sort of hearings doctors prescribe to patients who have developed nervous disorders from watching paint dry. If God does not exist, then the afterlife will be like an eternal watching of the Hayden hearings.
In fact, in terms of sheer soporificity, they achieved a certain narcoleptic greatness. An interaction among human beings — whose hearts were presumably beating and whose brain waves were presumably functioning — so lacking in normal human arousal deserves a show of respect.
And for this reason, the hearings must be investigated, for their dullness derived from three catatonic streams. It was, to twist the metaphor of a recent book, a perfect calm.
The first element in this calm was the rapid fizzling of the N.S.A. scandal. We have been treated in the past year to a panoply of anticlimactic frenzies. For example, we have seen the periodic flaring and the inevitable noneruption of the Valerie Plame affair. Every few weeks, perhaps coinciding with the full moon, the left half of the blogosphere will arise from its habitual state of paranoid rage and soar into a collective paroxysm of anticipatory glee over the thought of Karl Rove's imminent indictment. Alas, the indictment never comes.
But even by that standard, the fizzling of the N.S.A. scandal is remarkable. Most Americans seem to have looked at the facts and concluded that having to open your suitcase in the airport security line is a far bigger invasion of privacy than having your phone records in a list of four trillion numbers on a computer somewhere in an agency trying to fight terror.
Then at the hearing, General Hayden gave a sober and apparently thorough description of the safeguards in place to keep the information from being misused — of the checklists that career professionals must fill in before each investigative targeting, of the documentation that is kept, of the inspector general supervision and oversight. No Democrat challenged this procedure or showed much passion about the program at all.
The second cause of the dullness was General Hayden's obvious competence. The 19th-century journalist Walter Bagehot noted that the best government is dull. It consists of the regular implementation of minute decisions and requires no lofty appeals to emotion nor deep contentions of mind. By this standard, General Hayden is a public official par excellence.
He brings to the role of senior intelligence official a reassuring relish for epistemology, the ability to talk for seconds that seem like hours on inductive versus deductive reasoning and how an information bureaucracy should be organized. This is surely the cast of mind required atop the C.I.A.
Finally, there was a third tributary contributing to the hearing's catatonic calm, this one more troubling. You would never have known, as the epochs dragged by and the viewers fantasized about spontaneously combusting, that the United States had just suffered cataclysmic intelligence failures, that the C.I.A. was in crisis, that Americans' lives were at risk.
The committee members are supposed to oversee the intelligence agencies, but they sound as if they are part of the same culture. They speak in the same technical abstractions and engage in the same unreal thought.
"I would also work to more tightly integrate the C.I.A.'s S. & T. into broader community efforts to increase payoffs from cooperative and integrated research and development," General Hayden declared, setting the linguistic tone for the hearings. And the members nodded sagely along.
The one crack came toward the end of the event, when Senator Barbara Mikulski broke in and used normal words like "klutzy" to describe the crisis of management afflicting the agency. For an instant, eyes opened. Neurons nearly fired. But the intrusion of concrete thought did not last. The blanket of abstract dullness was deliciously restored.
Photo credit: David Brooks. (The New York Times)