Playing Politics With Intelligence

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, February 25, 2008; 1:52 PM

As President Bush and his aides reject the accusation that they are playing politics with matters of national intelligence, it's worth noting that they have done precisely that many times.

Bush and his top associates have a tradition of selectively disclosing intelligence findings that serve their political agenda -- while aggressively asserting the need to keep secret the information that would tend to discredit them. Think the run-up to war in Iraq. Think Valerie Plame. (See, for example, my March 31, 2006, column.)

Both aspects of this pattern are on full display in the White House's current pursuit of a surveillance bill that would permanently expand its warrantless wiretapping authority -- and would provide retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that for years complied with Bush's possibly illegal requests for private information.

In attempting to block the lawsuits being pursued by the ACLU and others, the White House is trying to eliminate the last opportunity Americans have to find out what the government has done in their name (at least until the next president takes over).

But now that it's politically advantageous, the administration is alleging all sorts of previously secret intelligence successes based on its expanded powers -- even while it refuses to provide any way to verify its claims.

On Friday afternoon, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey and national intelligence director Mike McConnell sent a six-page letter to Congress that said the return to older standards for wiretapping -- necessitated by the House's refusal to pass a Senate-backed extension earlier this month -- was hurting intelligence collection.

Although they backtracked within hours -- saying that after a hiccup, the government was once again receiving the necessary intelligence -- they justified the expanded program with some bold assertions: "Using the authorities provided in the Protect America Act, we have obtained information about efforts of an individual to become a suicide operative, efforts by terrorists to obtain guns and ammunition, and terrorists transferring money. Other information obtained using the authorities provided by the Protect America Act has led to the disruption of planned terrorist attacks."

A suicide bomber? Where? Terrorist attacks that have been disrupted? That's huge news.

But should we believe a word they say? Were these plots serious -- or imaginary, like those of the bumblers in Miami who the Justice Department originally said were planning an attack on the Sears Tower in Chicago? Would they withstand public scrutiny -- or vanish like the dirty bomb charges against Jose Padilla? And if these plots were for real, where's the proof that they wouldn't have been found out within the framework of the old law? The last time McConnell made just such an assertion, he ended up having to withdraw it.

In short, it's not just the timing of these disclosures that's suspect -- it's the disclosures themselves. Another example, which I described on, came in October when Bush listed four terrorist attacks he said his administration had prevented as a result of the CIA's harsh interrogation tactics. Under examination, it wasn't clear whether any of those attacks were much more than a fantasy.

In the News

Eric Lichtblau wrote in Saturday's New York Times: "A new round of political sparring erupted Friday over the government's wiretapping powers, as the Bush administration asserted that the lapsing of a surveillance law a week ago has already led to the loss of important intelligence information and made private phone carriers less willing to cooperate.

"Democrats immediately returned fire over the suggestion that they had compromised national security. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, accused President Bush of 'crying wolf' and said, 'These latest scare tactics represent the president at his most unreasonable, irresponsible and misleading.' . . .

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