Monday, May 15, 2006

"It's the recklessness at the top of our government, not the press's exposure of it, that has truly aided the enemy..."

In Sunday’s New York Times (reprinted here Monday in the International Herald Tribune), Frank Rich reminds us of the attempts by the Nixon administration to suppress the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret government history of the war in Vietnam, and the accusations of treason towards the press it used in 1971. The classified secrets revealed by the Pentagon Papers showed public officials had misled the public and tried to cover up their mistakes.

History, Rich points out, repeats itself. Now we have stories about secret prisons and warrantless spying on Americans followed by calls of treason by the administration and its defenders embarrassed by the revelations.

We can see this charade for what it is: The leaders who bungled a war want to change the subject to the journalists who caught them in the act. What really angers the White House and its defenders about both the Post and Times scoops are not the legal questions the stories raise about unregulated gulags and unconstitutional domestic snooping, but the unmasking of yet more administration failures in a war effort riddled with ineptitude. It's the recklessness at the top of the U.S. government, not the press' exposure of it, that has truly aided the enemy, put American lives at risk and potentially sabotaged national security. That's where the buck stops, and if there's to be a witch hunt for traitors, that's where it should begin.

Rich calls Porter Goss, the former CIA Director, so inept that he might be mistaken for a Qaeda double agent. His mission was not to protect the public from terrorists but to protect the Bush administration from the public.

Even before Goss went to the CIA, he was a drag on national security. In "Breakdown," a book about intelligence failures before the 9/11 attacks, the conservative journalist Bill Gertz delineates how Goss, then chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, played a major role in abdicating congressional oversight of the CIA, trying to cover up its poor performance while terrorists plotted with impunity. After 9/11, his committee's "investigation" of what went wrong was notoriously toothless.

Once he ascended to the CIA in 2004, Goss behaved like most other Bush appointees: He put politics ahead of the national interest, and stashed cronies and partisan hacks in crucial positions.

Besides driving out career employees, underperforming on Iran intelligence and scaling back a daily cross- agency meeting on terrorism, Goss's only other apparent accomplishment at the CIA was his war on those traitorous leakers. Intriguingly, this was a new cause for him. "There's a leak every day in the paper," he told The Sarasota Herald-Tribune when the identity of the officer Valerie Wilson was exposed in 2003. He argued then that there was no point in tracking leaks down because "that's all we'd do."

What prompted Goss' about-face was revealed in his early memo instructing CIA employees to "support the administration and its policies in our work." His mission was not to protect America but to prevent the airing of administration dirty laundry, including leaks detailing how the White House ignored accurate CIA intelligence on Iraq before the war.

On Goss's watch, CIA lawyers also tried to halt publication of "Jawbreaker," the former clandestine officer Gary Berntsen's account of how the U.S. command let Osama bin Laden escape when Berntsen's team had him trapped in Tora Bora in December 2001. The one officer fired for alleged leaking during the Goss purge had no access to classified intelligence about secret prisons but was presumably a witness to her boss's management disasters.

President Bush’s proposed replacement for Goss at the CIA is the former head of the NSA, General Michael Hayden. With all arguments from the Bush administration during the past few months about the need to intrude more and more into the privacy of Americans to prevent another 9/11 attack it is worth remembering that the NSA, under General Hayden, had a tip-off prior to 9/11 of the upcoming attack. They just didn’t get around to translating it until after the attacks.

Soon to come are the Senate's hearings on Goss's successor, General Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA. Bush endorsed his new CIA choice with the same encomium he had bestowed on Goss: He's "the right man" to lead the CIA "at this critical moment in our nation's history." That's not exactly reassuring.

This being an election year, Karl Rove hopes the hearings can portray Bush opponents as soft on terrorism when they question any national security move. It was this bullying that led so many Democrats to rubber-stamp the Iraq war resolution in the 2002 election season and Goss's appointment in the autumn of 2004.

Will they fall into the same trap in 2006? Will they be so busy soliloquizing about civil liberties that they'll fail to investigate the nominee's record? It was under Hayden, a self-styled electronic surveillance whiz, that the NSA intercepted actual Qaeda messages on Sept. 10, 2001 - "Tomorrow is zero hour" for one - and failed to translate them until Sept. 12.

You can read the entire column here.

No comments: