Monday, July 10, 2006

Icebergs and Other Musings on Intelligence

July 9 cannot slip into history as if it were simply another Sunday – not after what Representative Peter Hoekstra (MI) said and didn’t say during a television interview on Fox television.

Hoekstra, chairperson of the House Intelligence Committee and a strong supporter of the Bush administration’s approach to the “war on terror,” confirmed a July 8 story in the New York Times that his committee was told of a “significant” intelligence program only after he sent a letter to President Bush pointing out that the administration may have broken the law in not briefing the committee.

Interviews with “other officials” ruled out the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretaps and the Treasury Department’s program tracking financial transactions of suspected terrorists as the “significant” program in question. Hoekstra said he learned of the activity – about which he scrupulously avoided providing any detail – only when an unidentified government employee brought the program’s existence to his attention.

Judging from one comment during the Fox interview, Chairman Hoekstra is not just unhappy; he is furious at the administration’s failure to keep the intelligence committees informed. (Presumably, the Senate Intelligence Committee was also cut out of the information loop.) “I want to set the standard there, that it is not optional for this president or any president or people in the executive community not to keep the intelligence committees fully informed of what they are doing.”

As troubled as Hoekstra is, the public should be more troubled by his use of the plural when he noted that intelligence personnel “brought to my attention some programs that they believed we had not been briefed on.”

Ironically, Hoekstra, who praises the intelligence whistle-blower in this case, has been a very vocal critic of those government employees who leak classified information to the press after trying and failing to get wrongdoing – waste, fraud, abuse, violations of laws, deliberate lying to Congress and to the public – corrected within official channels.

Mark Felt (Deep Throat) and Daniel Ellsberg (The Pentagon Papers) are perhaps the most well known individuals who blew the whistle. Felt, who objected to Richard Nixon’s misuse of and interference with the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate burglary, went public, coaching the Washington Post through the twists and turns of Watergate. Ellsberg, many forget, went to the Senate with the multi-thousand page top secret report about the deception of Congress and the U.S. public in the Vietnam War.

In the post-September 11 atmosphere of fear that the administration seeks to perpetuate, other names come to mind of government employees who have somehow run afoul of the Bush administration’s penchant for classifying everything. Ambassador Joseph Wilson discounted the “Niger yellowcake” story that subsequently was included in the President’s 2003 State of the Union speech. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill related that even before September 11, the administration was considering how to “get” Saddam Hussein. Richard Clarke, who ran the White House counterterrorism unit, tried repeatedly to rein in the bogus claims by top administration officials about al-Qaeda-Iraq connections. Some would even include General Eric Shinseki, former Chief of Staff of the Army, in this list for truthfully telling a congressional committee that several hundred thousand troops would be required to occupy Iraq – an answer that contradicted the views of the Pentagon’s civilian leadership. And there is former CIA Employee Mary McCarthy who divulged the existence of secret CIA detention centers in Europe – denied of course by the Director of National Intelligence.

One reason for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the belief that a president, (like a monarch) who exercises unconstrained or unlimited power over information will inevitably misuse or overuse such power for private advantage. As pervasive as was the Cold War rationale of “national security” to justify classification in that era, looking back it now seems as light as day compared to the black hole of secrecy into which the country has been plunged since September 1, 2001.

Writing in August 1822 to William Barry, a Kentucky legislator who was on a committee looking at the state’s education system, James Madison said: “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”

In the democracy that Bush likes to triumph, the people, not the president, are sovereign. As such, government is accountable to the public. But it will be accountable only insofar as it is also transparent, that its activities are available to scrutiny by the public. It is this utter lack of transparency, embodies by administration attempts to cloak its actions under “national security” or “sources and method,s” that seems to have triggered Chairman Hoekstra’s harsh comments.

In his 1697 play, “The Mourning Bride," William Congreve wrote: “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” Three hundred years later, the same may be said of a committee head who believes the executive branch – even when controlled by his party – has deliberately “dissed” him.

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