He Could Tell You, but Then He'd Have to Kill You

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

John Negroponte, the national intelligence director, who is in the thick of an unprecedented effort to crack down on leaks of classified information, figured he'd start off his speech at the Mayflower Hotel yesterday with a couple of journalism jokes.

After an affectionate introduction by an official from the Anti-Defamation League, Negroponte quipped, "Beats the introduction I got at the National Press Club the other day."

The audience indulged him with a polite chuckle. Negroponte awarded himself a rather louder laugh. "Heh! Heh!" he proclaimed.

Ba-dum-bum. And he was just warming up.

"What you hear from me will not be classified," he continued, "but I hope it will be informative and thought-provoking nonetheless."

But seriously, folks.

Negroponte was informative enough to provoke thoughts mostly of nap time -- and that may well have been his goal. Anodyne and aseptic, the nation's spymaster did his best to tiptoe around the controversies of the moment:

He said nothing about the CIA's firing last week of Mary McCarthy over classified leaks. He said nothing about the administration's prosecution of two former pro-Israel lobbyists under the little-known Espionage Act of 1917. He didn't mention intensified efforts to reclassify public documents in the National Archives. And he certainly didn't discuss the FBI's efforts to gain access to the files of the late columnist Jack Anderson -- or the bureau's pursuit of the identities of pro-Israel journalists who worked for Anderson.

Negroponte's diffidence makes sense. Democrats have been pointing to the double standard between the administration's zeal to protect classified information with news that President Bush and Vice President Cheney authorized the selective leaking of classified information to, as prosecutors put it, punish a critic of the administration's Iraq policy.

As he left, Negroponte, surrounded by stiff-armed bodyguards, ignored a reporter's shouted question about leaks. The closest the director got to controversy was when he was asked by an audience member (the questions were filtered by a moderator) about the warrantless wiretapping program.

"Yes, well," the director replied, then cleared his throat and started again. He assured his audience that "there are very, very rigorous safeguards and oversight that are built into the execution of these programs" -- without mentioning that such safeguards did not include informing most members of Congress or the courts.

ADL officials are themselves wary about the administration's crackdown on leaks. Before Negroponte spoke, Abraham Foxman, the group's national director, said he was concerned about the prosecution of two former American Israel Public Affairs Committee officials for talking to reporters about classified information they received. "If I talk to somebody at the State Department or the National Security Council and I talk to you, am I breaking the law?" Foxman wondered.

But Foxman, who told the audience that Negroponte was a "friend" and that the country is "truly lucky" to have him, was not interested in confronting the director.

Even if Negroponte were inclined to discuss the administration's information crackdown, it might have seemed a bit jarring in his speech, which was otherwise devoted to the importance of spreading freedoms, rather than curtailing them. The terrorists would, among other things, "prohibit free speech," he said. "The United States and its allies are well known for promoting an entirely different kind of world, a world in which freedom of speech, congregation and worship are protected by the law."

Negroponte was not entirely without spark yesterday. While Bush has been on the stump criticizing the past policy of supporting friendly dictators, the spy chief pointed out that stability has its merits, too -- in places such as Iraq. "The potential for state failure is a priority for United States intelligence," he said. "So in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia or in Latin America, we need to keep watch on countries that might be dissolving into disorder."

But far more often, he tended toward the somniferous. Reading carefully from his text, he spoke in somber monotone about such things as "burgeoning geopolitical and economic interests" and "issues that are inherently transnational in nature." His definition of terrorism: "an exclusionist radical ideology espoused by militants that inflames commonly held grievances among Muslim-majority communities."

As the man struggling to make 16 intelligence agencies cooperate, he was fluent in bureaucratese. "Our intention through the office of the director of national intelligence is to actually try to work to break down the stovepipes," he proposed. "We will over time, I think, be able to leverage our intelligence community . . . as it emerges from its past tradition of having operated a little bit more in the mode of stovepipes."

In the grand tradition of spymasters, Negroponte was noncommittal about many judgments. It would, he postulated, "be just as undesirable to underestimate the appeal of the militant jihadists as it would be to overestimate it."

But he was clear about one thing. "We can make sure that the terrorists lose," he said, by "refusing to change our daily lives and, most importantly, by choosing not to be afraid." Unless, of course, we are in possession of classified information.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company