The Torturous Servility of Washington Think Tanks

The Globalist posted an article of mine today contrasting the courage of Washington vs. New York organizations.  

Washington vs. New York: Wonks vs. Courage

Washington has long had a reputation as being the place for serious political thinkers. By contrast, New York was seen as a place where people go to earn bushels of money. Yet, the reaction of Washington and New York organizations since 9/11 vivifies how these stereotypes are false — if not ludicrous, argues James Bovard, the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy.”

Around the world, Washington think tanks have a reputation as the home of the best and brightest.

Washington think tanks pride themselves on respectability, and there are certain subjects which should not be discussed if one wishes to retain status within the Beltway.


Think tank pronouncements are often treated with the respect of elder statesmen.  Unfortunately, since 9/11 Washington think tanks have been in the forefront of cheering on almost all of the Bush administration’s power grabs.During the last four years, President Bush has ritually gone to military bases to proclaim his most sweeping doctrines of preemptive attacks and “us against them” foreign policy. 

Captive audience

No one in a military audience can heckle the president without having his career ruined. Thus, there is no danger of the television clip of the president’s speech being marred by non-groveling responses.But blind support from people sworn to obedience is sometimes not enough to varnish the administration’s doctrines. The Bush team is also relying heavily on appearances at think tanks to give the impression of intellectual respectability to its message.

Dodging allegations When Pres. Bush needed an craven audience for a speech just before he invaded Iraq, Bush went to an American Enterprise Institute dinner—where his absurd rationales for the war were received as divine truths.

The failure of the Washington think tanks is in part a natural failure of intellectuals involved in politics and government policymaking.

AEI, one of the wealthiest Washington think tanks, has done back flips to advocate preemptive attacks on Arab and Muslim nations. Attorney General John Ashcroft kicked off his 2003 Patriot Act Salvation tour, replete with denials that the government was violating anyone’s civil liberties, at AEI.

Dick Cheney, probably the most unpopular vice president in American history, continues to receive statesmanlike treatment in his appearances at AEI and other Washington think tanks.

Disappointing results

Sadly, too many think tanks have become as servile as military bases, as far as providing applause for lies from the highest level of government.

In fact, two decades ago, many people expected think tanks to revolutionize politics in Washington, bringing ideas and principles to sordid political clashes. Instead, some think tanks have become nothing more than props for politicians.

Take on torture

The contrast between Washington and New York is perhaps clearest on the issue of torture— the policy that may have done more to define the Bush Administration in the eyes of the world than any other policy.

The think tanks have followed, usually at a safe distance, from newspaper coverage that itself was usually very deferential to the Bush Administration.

New York-based organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have doggedly pursued and courageously exposed the Bush Administration’s torture policies.

The ACLU has put a huge amount of resources into its Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to compel the disclosure of internal documents detailing interrogation policies and abuses.

Thanks to a courageous federal judge, Alvin Hellerstein, the ACLU has managed to snare thousands of pages of documents that have destroyed the Bush Administration’s false denials that torture was institutionalized and widespread throughout Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and elsewhere.

Fighting words

In May 2005, Amnesty International’s William Schulz declared that the United States had become “a leading purveyor and practitioner” of torture, and compared Guantanamo Bay to the “gulag.” At the time, there were widespread rumors about how the U.S. government had been involved with vigorous interrogation practices in numerous countries.

The Bush Administration savaged Amnesty. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denounced the “gulag” charge as “reprehensible,” Vice President Cheney announced that “I was offended” by the charge. (The Washington Post’s Dana Priest won a Pulitzer Prize for a story a few months later detailing the network of U.S. secret interrogation centers in East Europe and elsewhere).

Compare and Contrast

President Bush said it was “absurd” because Amnesty “based some of their decisions on the word and allegations by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people had been trained in some instances to disassemble [sic] — that means not tell the truth.”

Perhaps New York intellectuals commenting on U.S. policy have no aspirations for government jobs or sinecures on U.S. government commissions.

Amnesty was widely denounced for the gulag comment — and few, if any, of the critics have apologized after subsequent revelations vindicated Schulz.

Human Rights Watch has also vigorously pursued the torture scandal, issuing report after report on specific abuses in Iraq and elsewhere, and continually raising issues of U.S. law, international law, and moral principle in its challenges to U.S. policies. HRW’s Detainee Abuse and Accountability Project has laid out the facts for anyone to see — if anyone gives a damn.

Avoiding the issue

No Washington think tank has vigorously opposed or condemned torture. John Yoo, a high-ranking Justice Department official who wrote the memo saying that the president was above the law and not bound by any restraints on interrogation methods, is a fellow at AEI and was recently feted at the Heritage Foundation for a new book declaring that Congress can impose almost zero restraint on a president’s war-making.

The Brookings Institution, the premier “liberal” think tank, has generally avoided dirtying its hands by even touching this issue. The Cato Institute, the premier libertarian think tank, avoided the torture issue until last spring—nearly two years after the Abu Ghraib photographs surfaced, and three and a half years after newspaper reports indicated that the Bush Administration was using severe interrogation methods widely seen as torture.


Much of the think tank activism in Washington is donor-driven. Apparently, there was little or no money to be raised by coming out against torture.

Even the Washington Post editorial page — which supported Bush’s war on Iraq — has done far more to condemn and oppose torture than has any Washington think tank.

Perhaps something as grisly as torture repels policy wonks — it is a subject on which it is much more difficult to show cleverness than on capital gains tax rate reform.

The vast majority of other Washington think tanks have simply ducked the issue. Even the Washington Post editorial page — which supported Bush’s war on Iraq and continues to whitewash some of Bush’s falsehoods leading up to the war — has done far more to condemn and oppose torture than has any Washington think tank.

Think tanks have legions of analysts and researchers. They could have easily done much of the heavy lifting on the torture subject. Instead, they busied themselves far too long cheerleading whatever Mr. Bush did or suggesting marginal reforms on foreign policy.

Losing ground

Washington think tanks pride themselves on respectability, and as it stands there are certain subjects which should not be discussed if one wishes to retain status within the Beltway. Yet, if the federal government is able to consecrate its right to torture, any other limit on government power becomes practically irrelevant.

The failure of the Washington think tanks is in part a natural failure of intellectuals involved in politics and government policymaking. The think tanks have accepted most of the paradigms that the Bush Administration proclaimed. Criticism of the war on terror was almost non-existent in the first two years after 9/11 — at a time when the Bush Administration was seizing power left and right.

Call for courage

The think tanks have followed, usually at a safe distance, from newspaper coverage that itself was usually very deferential to the Bush Administration.

Think tanks busied themselves far too long cheerleading whatever Mr. Bush did or suggesting marginal reforms on foreign policy.

When news of the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretaps broke in December 2005, several Washington think tanks—including AEI, Heritage and the Cato Institute’s vice president— came out in defense of the administration’s trampling of both federal law and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (which prohibits this type of warrantless searches).

Perhaps New York intellectuals commenting on U.S. policy have no aspirations for government jobs or sinecures on U.S. government commissions. Perhaps New York organizations are more forthright—because they do not depend on high-profile photo opportunity visits by administration officials to use to loosen donors’ wallets. Or perhaps New York-based organizations have enough distance that they can still recognize an atrocity when they see it.


, , , , , ,

37 Responses to The Torturous Servility of Washington Think Tanks

  1. Bill Anderson November 17, 2006 at 4:33 pm #


    Don’t forget that when John Ashcroft made his “farewell speech,” he did it at the Heritage Foundation. During the speech, he defended the incarceration results in this country, declaring that we are throwing more people into prison, and the crime rate is falling. Of course, more than two million people are in U.S. prisons, one-fourth of the world’s total.

    Bush long ago abandoned speeches in any places where the audiences were not servile. Surprise, surprise, he and his minions hit the Washington “stink tanks.”

  2. Jim November 17, 2006 at 9:08 pm #

    And there were no catcalls during Ashcroft’s presentation at Heritage.

    Washington is the kind of place where no one hollers “bullshit!”

  3. David K. Meller November 18, 2006 at 1:48 pm #

    The issue of avoidance of discussing US government orders and official policy mandating torture of political prisoners (“alleged terrorists”) is well taken when one discusses Washington “think tanks” and their cowardice and opportunism.

    I appreciate how you remembered to include the CATO institute as one of the guilty. However, I take some exception to the designation of CATO as the primiere libertarian think-tank.

    The CATO Inst. stopped being Libertarian on Sept 11 2001. It is now nothing but one more echo of the neocon gang which includes AEI, “Heritage” and the Hudson Istitute.

    For Libertarian think-tanks, try Future of Freedom Foundation,, Mises Institute, ISIL, and Foundation for Economic Education.

    David K. Meller

  4. Izzy November 18, 2006 at 1:51 pm #

    Well done! The “donor-driven” aspect also explains why the conservative and libertarian think tanks hardly touch the homeschooling issue or other meaningful ‘separation of school and state’ reforms.

  5. Adam S. November 18, 2006 at 3:46 pm #

    I am glad to see that Mr. Bovard is under no illusions when it comes to government policies and agencies, as well as think tanks. These things cannot be reformed. (Any more the relationship between Big Gov’t. Big Business, and Big Institutions is like that of Whispering Twins.) What is needed now is a profound, thorough break with these centers. The dealings between politicians and their electorate should take place through a party, not through Institutions. The net effect of reliance on centers, organizations and the like is to make them arms of the government. We should realize once and for all that politics will never be virtuous but will continue to get worse.
    —Mara Liason once said “No matter how cynical you are in this town [Washington, D.C.], you just can’t keep up”—

  6. klyde November 18, 2006 at 11:22 pm #

    The “liberal leaning” Brookings Institute recenly invited one of Rumsfelds deputy defense secretaries to become a fellow with them.

    I may be reading this wrong but I wouldn’t consider the think tanks to be servile to the administration. It seems more to me they are partners with the admin in the same interprise, pushing Americans into foreign wars.

    Just like each member of a football team backs, recievers and lineman all have a role in scoring touchdowns, the adminstration, the congress, the press and the think tanks all play their part in making illegal invasions and occupations palatable to the general public.

  7. Jim November 18, 2006 at 11:37 pm #

    Kylde, with that kind of attitude, you’ll never become a Big Thinker in Washington.

    There is a revolving door that looks unsavory – unless one realizes that thinking is often simply a charade to sanctify power. The American Enterprise Institute is far ahead of other think tanks in this two-step.

  8. Janice A. Henry November 19, 2006 at 12:11 am #

    I am not as schooled on Institutes as other commentors, but in these past years I have listened carefully to all of them trying to learn and discern what is going on in Washington. The Mises Institute and Lew Rockwell blog has the clearest, without bias informative columns from true intellectuals. When I listen to the other panels, it is if they are all talking to
    hear themselves speak.

    And then the frustration to me is, DO SOMETHING WHEN A TRUISM IS FINALLY STATED AND AGREED UPON. From my opinion, they are a waste and a hinderance.

  9. Orville H. Larson November 19, 2006 at 12:21 am #

    There can be no doubt that the neofascist Bush administration loves the neofascist “think tanks.”
    No matter what constitutional travesty Bush embraces or proposes, AEI, Heritage et al. will be happy to act as his cheerleading section.

  10. Aris November 19, 2006 at 9:50 am #

    Slight correction: Around the world, Washington think tanks have a reputation as the home of the dumbest liars and least competent fabricators.

  11. liberranter November 19, 2006 at 10:30 am #

    I echo David K. Meller’s sentiments concerning the Cato Institute, a once proud and principled organization that has been corrupted just as inevitably as any organization that chooses to make its home inside of Interstate 495 (the Libertarian National Committee serves as another example of an organization corrupted even more deeply in this way).

    The only logical solution for any principled “think tank” that wishes to remain true to its mission is to avoid the Septic Tank on the Potomac and establish itself elsewhere, outside of that city’s corrupting influence. It is difficult to imagine that any libertarian organization, in particular, would be sufficiently worshipful of the central state to assume that its geographical situation inside the central state’s capital would have anything other than a pernicious effect. Since libertarianism advocates abolition of the central state as a source of coercive power, the mission of any libertarian “think tank” should be the education and influence of the citizenry, through reason and discourse, to bring about that goal through peaceful means. Locating one’s organization inside the central state’s hub of power is clearly the least effective means of achieving this goal, especially in that influencing the powers-that-be (an underlying goal of any organization’s location in Rome on the Potomac) is not a serious consideration.

    If Cato, in particular, is to be salvaged at all, let it relocate to New York, Omaha, El Paso, or any one of a hundred other major cities far away from toxic and dangerous center of state power and influence where it can continue its libertarian outreach without the distraction of statist power and influence.

  12. Jim November 19, 2006 at 12:25 pm #

    Aris – but otherwise, the article is accurate?

  13. John Galt November 19, 2006 at 2:03 pm #

    The only solution to government is it’s destruction. Only then will man live free.

  14. Jim November 19, 2006 at 3:01 pm #

    I can’t help but suspect that that would adversely affect Georgetown real estate values.

  15. Kevin Tuma November 19, 2006 at 7:01 pm #

    I think it’s a bit harsh and premature to lump in the CATO Institute with neo-conservatives.

    Bear in mind, for starters, that CATO does not march in lockstep with anyone. That alone sets it apart from so-called “conservative” think tanks with their penchant for undying statism and patriotism that is defined as obedience to the throne.

    I will agree that CATO has been a bit slow to attack the executive branch on the presumed “War on Terror”. However, all that establishes is the battle that is currently going on for the libertarian movement’s soul. The libertarian movement is now vacillating between anti-statism and
    Reaganism. The entire movement does not really know its footings. Go to the Libertarian Party’s official website, for example, and look at the syrupy FLASH animation that practically endorses statism. It is painfully clear to me that libertarians are morphing into “GOP Lite”.

    The folk at CATO Institute are hardly neo-cons; they are intelligent and sincere. Much of their fight is against overregulation, and I believe they have made great strides in that area. Before deciding that the CATO
    Institute is in collusion with the other side, let’s first determine what a 21st century libertarian stands for.
    It’s a question I don’t believe many can answer.

  16. bob November 19, 2006 at 7:44 pm #

    Another point. While the think tanks further the cause of the corporations, Israel and war, they are also costing the taxpayers money as these tanks are funded by giving wealathy entities huge tax breaks.

  17. Jim November 19, 2006 at 10:26 pm #

    Some of the most brazen foreign influence buying has involved the Heritage Foundation and some southeast Asian nations. The quid pro quos are almost comical.

  18. Fascist Nation November 20, 2006 at 12:38 am #

    Think tank co-opted by politicians. Promoting war and foreign entanglements. Yeah, that reminds me of someone. Gosh, I just can’t quite place it. I remember it begins with a “C” though and sounds like NATO.


  19. MICHAEL T DARWYNE November 20, 2006 at 4:12 am #

    An excellent essay. The “Think Tankers” will be cross-it makes it look as though they have not been thinking. Expect a flurry of post-torture agonising and band-wagon attacks on the “current Administration”. Lots of re-positioning to be done before budgets for next year are drawn up and begging bowls go out to the usual donors (who will not want to be seen to be supporting positions that are rapidly being exposed as indefensible.)

  20. Chris Baker November 20, 2006 at 8:16 am #

    Almost all the honest think tanks are outside of Washington, DC. The Foundation for Economic Education, the Independent Institute, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute have served us admirably during this unfortunate period.

  21. Jim November 20, 2006 at 9:35 am #

    Kevin Tuma – I agree that a debate over what 21st century libertarians stand for would be healthy.

  22. Daniel November 20, 2006 at 11:05 am #


    Jim: You hit the nail with that one. Anyone wonder what it costs to keep a big building full of “think-tankers” running in Washington, D.C.? One big donor who doesn’t like to see Bush or the “Global War on Terror” criticized can pull the plug on any such criticism simply with the threat to withhold funding. Anyone watch the purges at CATO over the past several years? Bush critics and GWOT critics have been fired under the most laughable of pretenses, while global interventionists have been allowed to flourish. That’s why you see CATO “scholars” sucking up to the most absurd dictators overseas in the name of promoting the “free market.” Murray is turning over in his grave…

  23. Marcus November 20, 2006 at 1:26 pm #

    As usual a great article, especially the end where, of course, the punch line usually goes. I take exception to some of the folks saying the think tank people aren’t too bright, they are but the are wearing blinders. They remind me of the man that traveled to get his Nobel prize, I think it was in physics, without his wife and his daughter was ariving a few hours later than him. He was hungry and tried to open a can with a can opener, it didn’t work so he went to the store to get one that worked. This happened a couple of times until his daughter got there to show him how it worked. A brillant man no doubt, but limited to his area of expertise and like the think tankers, very blinded by his single mindedness of how things worked, even when he didn’t have experience with them.

  24. Marcus November 20, 2006 at 1:38 pm #

    In my quest to sound so smart I forgot to put one of my main qualms about torture on the reply. That is no matter what happens in war, torture will happen but when you institutionalise it, it happens a lot, a whole lot. When I was in Viet Nam, it happened a lot I thought but it was against the law, so it happened much less than it would have as institutionalised now. BTW, if anybody thinks any country is above it or how bad it is then think of the recent ones, France in Algieria, Argentina, Chile, Britain in the Boer War, France and England in the French and Indian war, France in their Revolution, Germany and her allies go without saying. I guess the US felt left out of the good old boy club and just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Maybe John Yoo needs to find out what a Tucker telephone call is like.

  25. Adam S. November 20, 2006 at 2:07 pm #

    I believe that Think Tanks have “tanked” and morphed into septic tanks because they are self-serving ideology factories. They are walking stereotypes. Jonathan Rowe was disparaging the Heritage Foundation when he said “They don’t think; they justify”, but he could have just as easily have been talking about CATO, the Hudson Institute, or AEI. I realized their apparent nature when Bruce Bartlett was fired for not kowtowing to Caesar Jr (i.e. he published “Impostor”)
    Cato, though, is my heart-breaker. They have gone from classic essays like “Delusions of Grandeur” to hopelessly generic, pasty papers like “Doublespeak in the War on Terror” It is hard to tell the difference between a Cato commentary and talking points for Fox News (e.g. Charles V. Pena).
    I have to agree with an anonymous wag who said “We are white men between the ages of 50 and 55 and we have no place else to go” The greatest thing to happen for the country would be for the think tanks to move out of Washington or put themselves out of business. The think tanks right now only serve the purpose of dispiriting people.

  26. Aris November 21, 2006 at 3:52 am #

    Think tanks? More like Stink tanks. They reminds me of Hegel, the one-man supreme think tank who sold himself out totally to the state. He achieved fame and notoriety by making sure no one understood him, but everyone pretended that he/she did. To be sure, in terms of intellectual prowess, none of the so-called thinkers of today’s tanks come even half close to Hegel, but they all share a few traits: dishonesty, servitude, and disregard for the well being of ordinary folks–I was going to add “not thinking,” but then how would they talk, walk and get in their pants or skirts without minimum amount of thinking.

  27. Jim November 21, 2006 at 11:35 am #

    I disagree. There are some individuals at DC think tanks that have done fine work. Cato has done some good work on the Fourth Amendment and on No Knock Raids, as well as filing strong briefs on the enemy combatant issue. Heritage has hit some issues well over the years.

    My point in the piece is not that all DC think tanks are alike. AEI is definitely the pacesetter for cheerleading for Leviathan. Yoo, the Torture Meister, is one of their dignitaries – but he has been welcomed to speak at other DC think tanks, including Cato & Heritage. Yoo is a pariah in much of the United States – actually, much of the world – for his endorsement of policies such as permitting presidents to order the crushing of testicles (See my American Conservative review of his book).

    Yet, Beltway libertarians and conservatives are more likely to treat Yoo like an eminence than a pox.

  28. Peter November 21, 2006 at 6:47 pm #

    Cato is horrible, supporting Bush’s crimes all over the place, the illegal war (firing their anti-war guy), trumping up fake digits for the social security fraud, etc. But, as Jim mentioned, they did some good ‘No Knock’ work – they did a map of the orgy of violence that the federales use on unsuspecting victims:

    Jim’s comment reminded me of that raid map, and reminded me of my favorite police brutality show:

  29. Marc Swanson November 23, 2006 at 9:57 am #

    As far as I know Germany in the 1930’s didn’t nurture professional “think tanks” but did, however, call upon the services of numerous intellectuals to perform essentially the same function. Isn’t it a curious that many of them suddenly discovered the unquestionable truth of racial purity and the urgent need for territorial “growing room”?

  30. Mr. Robert Elia I November 27, 2006 at 4:13 pm #

    Cut the tax breaks on the think tanks. Put all those thinkers back into the work force instead of allowing them to mmoch on our taxpayer welfare.This will insure a greater degree of peace and quiet for all of us.

  31. Todd Boyle November 28, 2006 at 6:06 pm #

    Don’t throw the baby with the bathwater. Without government, sociopaths and despots face no constraints at all– other than other, warring despots. We really have no choice but hard work, to clean house in Washington DC. There is so much at stake– our entire commons, our environment, our social security and old age, survivors and disability coverage at the national level. But you all know there’s even more at stake, lest, the power-holders continue their architecture of monopolies and protections throughout the US economy.

    Put down your illusions of decentralization, etc. At some point you have to cross the street, and oppose them, and take them out of power,

  32. Isis November 29, 2006 at 11:15 pm #

    Screw the wonks!

    Look what is happening to those of us who get our hands dirty on the streets!

  33. fm4 radio November 30, 2006 at 9:26 am #

    Hi. I am a journalist from austrian national radio working on a special think tanks. If you would be prepared to share your views for a pre-recorded telephone interview for broadcast, please reply to the email address provided. Best wishes C

  34. Clyde N. Wilson December 3, 2006 at 2:13 pm #

    Mr. Bovard, I am a great admirer of your books and other writings but want to politely take acception to your aticle in the Dec. 28 TAC on torture. You refer to the horrid MCA as the most disgraceful act since the Fugitive Slave Law. Like most Americans, you overlook the use of military commissions (including unjustified and indefinite imprisonment and execution) by the U.S. Government against Southern civilians in the period 1861–1876. Everything done and proposed by Bush was done under Lincoln and Grant, except that it was used against American civilians and not foreign soldiers.

  35. Jim December 3, 2006 at 4:20 pm #

    Mr. Wilson – thanks for the comment.

    I will start an entry on the TAC torture piece as soon as they get the URL up – or maybe I will just launch it tomorrow.

    How many of the atrocities by the Union forces 1861+ were authorized by specific acts of Congress?


  1. National Sorry Day? | Lew Rockwell - December 9, 2011

    […] sponsors. It is sheer laziness to sneer at media manipulators and the federally-symbiotic "think tanks" which "spin" blindly delusional […]