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Now who's leaking the secrets?

October 01, 2006|David Wise | David Wise, a Washington-based author, writes frequently about intelligence and secrecy.

LAST WEEK, ONE of Washington's favorite spectator sports -- the secrecy game -- reached new heights of absurdity. Americans were treated to the spectacle of an administration obsessed with secrecy turning around and declassifying parts of one of the most highly secret documents produced by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies.

President Bush ordered what might be termed selective leaks of the National Intelligence Estimate on global terrorism because newspapers reported last Sunday that the estimate concluded that the war in Iraq had, in effect, created more terrorists and made the U.S. and the world less safe.

This is the exact opposite of what the White House has been telling the public for months. In his televised address from the Oval Office on Sept. 11, for example, Bush said "the regime of Saddam Hussein was a clear threat.... The world is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power."

So, it is hardly surprising that the president felt compelled to counter-leak, as it were. He ordered the report's "key judgments" released. Sure enough, the document said that the war was "shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders ... breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement."

The estimate also said that the government's counter-terror efforts had "seriously damaged" Al Qaeda, and that if the terrorists failed in Iraq, "fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight." That was language the White House badly wanted out there to counter the stark conclusion that the war had spawned more terrorists.

In his Tuesday news conference, Bush noted that the story about the National Intelligence Estimate landed "on the front page of your newspapers" as the country was "coming down the stretch in an election campaign." He added: "Somebody has taken it upon themselves to leak classified information for political purposes."

Whoever leaked the story about the report may indeed have been motivated by politics and a desire to undermine the administration before the midterm elections. It is equally possible that one or more persons inside the intelligence agencies or elsewhere in the government decided to go public because they were dismayed by the administration's mantra that the U.S. is safer because of the war in Iraq, knowing that the evidence did not support that view.

But regardless of the motives behind the leaking of the document's contents, what's clear is that the president ordered up a declassified release to score political points. This is the same president who has consistently denounced leaks and whose administration has even threatened to prosecute journalists who reported the leaks.

When New York Times reporter James Risen disclosed the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation. After Dana Priest of the Washington Post reported that the CIA was interrogating terrorist suspects in secret prisons in Eastern Europe, Republican leaders in Congress called for a congressional investigation into the leak, and the House Intelligence Committee opened one. The CIA fired senior analyst Mary McCarthy, letting stand the implication that she had leaked the story to the Post, which McCarthy strongly denied.

Yet, earlier this month, when it suited the administration's political purposes -- to keep the congressional elections focused on terrorism and national security -- Bush revealed that 14 suspected terrorists were being transferred from secret CIA prisons overseas to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Not only that, John Negroponte, director of national intelligence, released biographies and photographs of the suspects, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

Bush's disclosure about the transfer, and his release last week of portions of the NIE, was not the first time the White House has revealed secrets when it was politically expedient. In July 2003, the administration released the "key judgments" of the notorious National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq to try to justify the decision to invade the country. But none of the weapons of mass destruction that the document said Hussein possessed were found.

Of course, presidents can declassify whatever they please, and other chief executives have done the same. In April 1986, when President Reagan addressed the nation to announce the U.S. bombing of Libya, he paraphrased three sensitive communications intercepts to buttress his case that Libya was responsible for the bombing of La Belle discotheque in Berlin that killed three people, including two U.S. servicemen, and wounded more than 200 others.

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