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Sinking ships of accountability

By Brad Keena
web posted June 24, 2002

The White House was appropriately miffed last week when someone on Capitol Hill leaked classified snippets of information to the media after a closed-door hearing probing the September 11 attacks.

The classified briefing before the bipartisan House-Senate intelligence committee included testimony from Lt. General Michael Hayden, who heads the National Security Agency (NSA), the outfit whose mission is to monitor communications from around the world, break codes and make codes. Among the hundreds of thousands of messages captured September 10 were two hints that something might be afoot, Hayden is said to have told the panel. The next day, in the morning paper, the General read what he told the Congressmen and Senators not to repeat the day before.

What was it they used to say during World War II - "loose lips sink ships?"

Apparently, all that is out the window in 2002, especially when control of the Senate is at stake in a mid-term election year of a popular president trying to fight a war. After all, what's another terrorist attack compared to the political goal of making the president look like a dope so you can win Senate seats for your party? (Unless, of course, the leaker turns out to be a Republican, in which case he is an even bigger dope than what he had tried to make the President appear to be.)

"The selective, inappropriate leaking of snippets of information risks undermining national security and risks undermining the promises made to protect the sensitive information," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "The president [has] very deep concerns about anything that would be inappropriately leaked that could in any way endanger America's ability to gather intelligence information, and even that could harm our ability to maintain sources and methods and anything that could interfere with America's ability to fight the war on terrorism."

The president was equally "concerned" [mad as hell?] last October when a knucklehead on Capitol Hill leaked damaging classified information about the government's response to the 9/11 attacks.

Then there was that 1998 leak of information about the National Security Agency's efforts to eavesdrop on Osama bin Laden's satellite phone conversations. After that, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks stopped using phones altogether, officials say.

What exactly was leaked to the classified-snippet hungry media last week? As the media has now repeated - worldwide - it was a pair of simple, four-word phrases captured by the NSA from phone calls on September 10: "Tomorrow is zero hour" and "The match begins tomorrow."

Michael Hayden

Among the most credible people in the Administration, General Hayden is respected by both parties as a good manager, sincere in his goal of transforming a Cold War relic into a valuable agency in the fight against tribal opponents. On Capitol Hill last week, he was trying to do his job, briefing the handful of Senators and Congressmen charged with keeping the NSA accountable. In a perfect world, it's a great system. One agency with all kinds of power reports its progress and activities before another branch of the government. Checks and balances. Legislative overseeing Executive.

Sadly, not only is it not a perfect world, it's a political world -- one that rewards political dirty tricks with political advantage. That Hayden was frustrated is an understatement. The reason: he can't tell the rest of the story without breaking the law. You see, it's supposed to be illegal for those who have been trusted with classified information to turn around and divulge that kind of information to those who are not. In this case, he can't stand up and explain to the media that these snippets were from two out of hundreds of thousands of conversations picked up by the NSA that day, or that his analysts get lots of phrases like this, or that few of these potential warnings, if any, ever amount to anything. He can't tell us who they think said it, why they were low-priority sources, or if the rest of the conversations had anything even remotely to do with what we now know happened the next day.

The media and the public might say, "Why shouldn't we learn what's going on. We have a right to know." Ordinarily, I would tend to agree, but not in like this case. Truth does not become Truth by disclosure; Truth is constant, disclosed or not. However, a snippet of Truth, where disclosed in part or out of context, can be fashioned into Falsehood, thereby defrauding the original Truth from whence it came. We call that "calumny." Saying the President and the agency under him knew about 9/11 but did nothing is a calumny.

And it is also political ammunition. There are close races this fall in Missouri, South Dakota, Georgia, Arkansas, and Minnesota, to name a few. By November, the president will likely have visited all of those states. A discredited president would make a weak impression: advantage Democrats, who currently hold the Senate by a mere thread.

Now, I'd like to say "that's politics," and it is, for the most part. And I'll remind you that I'm second to none in my earnest conviction that secret and powerful agencies must be held accountable, lest those holding the rains of power become seduced by what's in their hands, and use that power to trample the freedoms of the citizenry. [Power corrupts; that is its nature. We are weak; that is our nature.] I am keen on the need for serious questions to get answered, even during times that require national unity, i.e., times of war.

However, this unfortunate episode is not about checks against unbridled power, or the public's right to know, or even about what should have been done to prevent 9/11. It is about political opportunism, and it may well come at the expense of common-sense accountability. Now, I fear, future administrations will steer clear of forthrightness. I fear they'll remember the political leaks of classified information to score political points. I fear they'll resist disclosing any information of substance to the groups (or the public for that matter) that need to hear and assess that information. I fear the process of accountability is about to go right down the drain along with the leak of those snippets this week.

Terrorists need not crash another plane or target another soul as far as the United States is concerned. They've done their damage and, worse, they've watched us do the rest for them.

Contact Brad Keena at jbkeena@hotmail.com.

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