Monday, August 04, 2008

Must read in (egad!) The New Republic

Jack Goldsmith, a dissident but "conservative" lawyer who left the Justice Department around the start of the reign of the odious Gonzalez, has written a compelling review of the new book by one of the two NY Times reporters who exposed the secret and largely illegal programs initiated by the Bush (Cheney) administration after 9/11/2001.

I don't agree with Goldsmith that there were probable national security breaches anywhere in the NY Times articles Eric Lichtblau and James Risen wrote. However, I do wholeheartedly agree with his ultimate point that a loss of legitimacy arising from the Bush (Cheney) administration doing illegal things, will and did lead to reporters revealing more than they normally would about clandestine military and intelligence gathering activities.

These are four key paragraphs from the lengthy review of the book:

Lichtblau and his colleagues did not just report on the fact that the United States was aggressively tracking terrorists. They disclosed, much more damagingly, many operational details about how it did so. They reported not only the details of the SWIFT program, but also on data mining and pattern analysis of telephone and e-mail information, the government's listening in on purely international communications that "transit" through the United States, the close cooperation of private telecommunications firms in these efforts, and government analysis of ATM transactions, credit card purchases, wire payments, and more. I am not permitted to say which of those stories are true, but I can say that the true ones involved matters that were unknown to our enemies, and therefore gave the government a big advantage in tracking them. Their disclosure helped terrorists to avoid forms of communication that we were good at monitoring, and instead to switch to channels of communication in which we lack comparative advantage.


A root cause of the perception of illegitimacy inside the government that led to leaking (and then to occasional irresponsible reporting) is, ironically, excessive government secrecy. "When everything is classified, then nothing is classified," Justice Stewart famously said in his Pentagon Papers opinion, "and the system becomes one to be disregarded by the cynical or the careless, and to be manipulated by those intent on selfprotection or self-promotion." And he added that "the hallmark of a truly effective internal security system would be the maximum possible disclosure," noting that "secrecy can best be preserved only when credibility is truly maintained."

The Bush administration defied these precepts and suffered as a result. Instead of employing the secrecy stamp sparingly, it did so extravagantly. Instead of engaging the press and public about the disclosable aspects of what it was up to, the Bush administration shut off the press, heightening its suspicion and mistrust. Instead of working with Congress or the secret surveillance court to update its surveillance powers after September 11, it took a go-it-alone approach. The administration kept the very existence of the program from all but the secret court's chief judge, Lichtblau reports, and gave congressional briefings only to the congressional leadership (the "gang of eight") rather than to both intelligence committees, many of whose members would later complain that they were briefed incompletely. The administration even short-circuited normal procedures inside the executive branch. It kept the number-two person in the Justice Department out of the loop. And it didn't share legal opinions related to the program with the National Security Agency that was running the program.

The secrecy of the Bush administration was genuinely excessive, and so it was self-defeating. One lesson of the last seven years is that the way for government to keep important secrets is not to draw the normal circle of secrecy tighter. Instead the government should be as open as possible, and when secrecy is truly necessary it must organize and conduct itself in a way that is beyond reproach, even in a time of danger. In the end, not Congress, nor the courts, nor the press can force the government to follow these precepts. Only the president can do that.

The comments to the article, at least some of them, are also interesting. Good for The New Republic for printing this informative and again compelling article.


ADDENDUM: And hot off the presses, Ron Suskind's new book alleges the Bush (Cheney) administration ordered the CIA to forge a document to promote the supposed link between al Queda and Saddam Hussein. George Tenet offers a weak denial--weak because he admits he can only say he personally was not aware of any such thing.

Also, Suskind's book reconfirms how the Bush (Cheney) administration cherry-picked intelligence, and ignored those who said Saddam Hussein did not have "weapons of mass destruction." Tenet glibly asserts those Iraqi nationals and exiles who told the CIA there were no WMDs were without credibilty. This is glib because at least one of the Iraqi exiles he and Cheney relied upon was codenamed "Curveball," which name later proved most ironic (scroll down to here and note how Tenet denied knowing "Curveball" was unreliable, a denial one of Tenet's top subordinates refuted). Worse, Tenet fails to tell his readers that most congresspeople did not receive information from the CIA that included doubts and dissenting opinions during the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Tenet is the one who is not credible.

Separate from the above is whether Suskind's book is itself credible on the forgery story. Based upon my general belief that the White House is at least as much vindictive as crooked, and that this could be a trap set for Suskind (who Bush and Cheney and Republican operatives obviously despise), I will wait awhile before concluding whether Suskind's charge is accurate.


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