Plugging the leaks

By Richard Cohen Published:

By Richard Cohen

Who is he?

Does he rue the day when he picked up the phone, dialed the number, waited a ring or two -- and then quickly hung up. He called later that same day, this time getting a voice, and in panic hung up again. He had stuff to tell a reporter about how the Bush administration was distorting intelligence about Iraq, but he worried: Could the reporter protect his identity?

This person of my fervid imagination surely exists. In this countrys vast intelligence bureaucracy, there had to be more than one person who knew the data was being cherry-picked, that conclusions were reached ahead of the facts, that the politically dexterous were being praised and the honestly skeptical were being ignored. But they kept their mouths shut and if they reached for anything, it was for the next file, not the phone.

In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Paul R. Pillar, the CIAs top guy for the Middle East during the run-up to the war in Iraq, speaks from retirement to show how the Bush administration selectively used intelligence. Among other things, the consensus at the CIA was that there was no link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. And while the spooks of Langley more or less concurred that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, they also thought his nuclear program was years away from fruition. In short, there was no urgent reason to go to war.

I wish I had known that. I wish, also, that I had known that the CIA had sent about 30 Iraqi emigres back to their homeland in the months before the war to ask close friends and relatives about Saddams WMD programs. The emigres interviewed weapons scientists. They learned that the WMD programs had been abandoned. I know this now from James Risens book, State of War. I wish I had known it when it really mattered.

The government has a right to its secrets. But the government does not have a right to use its secrets to construct a false case for war. That, though, is precisely what the Bush administration did. And now, the administration is pursuing a policy of chasing down leaks by chasing down the reporters who get those leaks. The most famous of these cases involved Judith Miller of The New York Times -- and leftist critics of the war mindlessly cheered on the special prosecutor, thinking (if thats the right word) that his investigation would somehow bring down the administration. All it did was bring down Miller.

Now, the government is looking into other leaks to the Times, as well as to The Washington Post. This time, its conservatives who are cheering. Who told the Times about those NSA intercepts? Who told the Post about secret CIA prisons? Why is it that the administration can leak classified stuff -- Dick Cheneys former aide, Scooter Libby, now confirms this was the practice -- and yet the critics cannot? Whats secret? Just what embarrasses?

It used to be that the government went to some pains to avoid asking a journalist about his sources. No more. Now its the first stop in an investigation, a short cut. The result can only be a further sense of intimidation -- a message to potential sources that they had better keep their mouths shut. Depending on what they have to say, they will get no support from the public. The anonymous source, so essential to the workings of our wonderfully chaotic democracy, has now taken on the odor of the snitch. Conservatives and liberals can now agree on one thing: a press that does not tell them what they want to hear is not deserving of support.

One way the White House got Congress and the public to support the war in Iraq was by monopolizing information. Cheney talked of Iraqs reconstituted nuclear weapons program. Condi Rice opened her mouth and a mushroom cloud came out. Such nonsense largely went unrebutted. The contrary facts -- no, the real facts -- were known, but the knowers were mute. In his Foreign Affairs article, Pillar mentions varying degrees of private protest (my emphasis) by CIA analysts and others to the administrations manipulation of intelligence, but this was clearly not enough. What was needed - what was urgently required -- was a public protest: a leak.

On Meet the Press recently, Pillars article was a topic and Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., of the House Intelligence Committee asked, Where was he before we went to war? Good question, but a better one is, What was he doing before the war?

Maybe picking up the phone and putting it down.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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