Washington Secrets

Washington Secrets Not What they Seem

Christoph Bangert/Polaris for The New York Times

Reporting on the Iraq war often means touching on classified material.

October 23, 2005
Correspondence

The Washington Secret Often Isn’t

WASHINGTON — There are still lots of real secrets in Washington. But the most secretive White House in modern history has learned the hard way – even while its spokesman reflexively utter the caution, "We don’t talk about intelligence," or, "Sorry, that’s classified" – that it must reveal a pretty steady stream of secrets all the time.

That is one reason journalists and some government officials are so wary of what might happen next in the C.I.A. leak case, which could conclude with indictments within a week. What began as a narrow case on a specific leak, many fear, has morphed into a broader threat to the way business is done here, a system that often benefits both sides.

The investigation into the disclosure of the identity of a then covert C.I.A. operative, Valerie Wilson, might end with a broadly defined charge that boils down to divulging secret information, a category that covers not only real secrets, but the daily give and take between officials and journalists.

Reporters worry about a chilling effect, one that would make it even harder to explain what the government is doing. Some government officials say they fear the impact because they know that it is often difficult these days to try to justify a national security decision, or warn of an impending threat, or even complain about some kinds of budget cuts without slipping into classified territory.

In short, the law does not distinguish terribly well between real secrets and sort-of secrets, especially in an age when the instinct to stamp "classified" runs rampant.

Few question that the name of a covert C.I.A. officer qualifies as an important secret: Disclosure can get people killed. But that case is the exception, rather than the rule. In five years of covering national security issues at the Bush White House, I’ve seen classified information leaked or suddenly declared "declassified" for many reasons, most often to explain a new policy and sometimes to back up a presidential statement.

Just consider the past couple of weeks of White House reporting, which were pretty typical.

My colleague James Risen unearthed a story about a firefight between American and Syrian forces along the Iraq border. Together, we began to explore its larger meaning: An internal White House debate over whether President Bush should formally allow the war to spill over the Syrian border, so that insurgents massing there could be stopped before attacking American troops in Iraq.

The president’s top foreign policy aides met to discuss this subject on Oct. 1, though officially the White House would not acknowledge that the meeting took place.

But once they understood we were writing the article anyway, they felt compelled to talk, so that they would not appear to be stumbling into an expansion of the war. It was almost impossible to discuss the policy without wandering into events that were never made public and the debate over whether the president should issue a classified "finding" allowing action in Syria.

Our more creative sources found a way to talk carefully, using coded phrases like "if such a meeting happened …" or "if the President decided to. …"

Much the same happens when I press officials to explain the administration’s options for beginning a withdrawal in Iraq next year. This means cutting past the president’s oft-repeated statement that "as the Iraqis stand up, we can stand down." Similarly, you cannot intelligently discuss the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, or China’s missile buildup, without trafficking in facts marked classified.

So it is not uncommon for such facts to slip out, sometimes from officials seeking to wake up the administration or Congress to what they consider an under-appreciated threat. Plenty of strategic leaking goes on in the administration – especially if officials think they can conceal the sources of the information and make it public without putting someone’s life in danger.

Misjudgments happen. As soon as news organizations around the world reported several years ago that the United States was listening to Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone conversations, he stopped making the calls, intelligence officials say. But such a clear-cut case is usually the exception.

If there ever was a day in which classified material was kept in one well-locked drawer, completely separate from policy arguments and "open source material," it went out with the Pentagon Papers.

There are moments when what is classified in the morning becomes public record in the afternoon. Two weeks ago, President Bush gave a speech defending his record fighting terrorism, saying the United States and its allies had stopped 10 terror plots, including three in the United States. He described none of them, and his spokesman, Scott McClellan, declined to provide details.

BUT by late afternoon – after heated conversations between reporters and the White House, and then the White House and intelligence agencies – the White House e-mailed reporters a list of plots. It was a mix of cases that were well known and a few never before made public. A senior official who talked about them that night joked that a few hours earlier he might have been jailed for discussing the subject.

"Now we’ve posted it on the White House Web site," he said.

He might have said the same of a letter, apparently written by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a senior Qaeda leader, that was seized by American intelligence earlier this year. A few months ago, its existence was closely held. But the administration released it earlier this month to back up Mr. Bush’s argument that Islamic extremists are seeking to create a caliphate from Spain to Indonesia.

The administration declassified all kinds of intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program so that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell could discuss it publicly in his famous Feb. 5, 2003, presentation to the United Nations. Unfortunately for him, almost every example he cited turned out to be wrong.

Later in 2003, the White House resisted for weeks calls to declassify parts of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq that formed the basis for Mr. Powell’s arguments, and those of Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Those estimates were once considered the crown jewels of the intelligence world. Eventually, the White House was forced to relent after the drip, drip, drip of accusations that the president had cherry-picked intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion. Once it became public, the estimate became Exhibit A in what had gone wrong inside the American intelligence community.

The issue of secrecy won’t go away. This week, a prosecutor may send a shot across Washington’s bow: any indictment is bound to change the unspoken rules of authorized and unauthorized leaks, even if just for a while. But the week after, government officials will have to explain to allies, other nations and reporters why they are so worried that Iran may be building a bomb, and why they believe North Korea must permit inspections of every nook, cranny and cave in the country. And to do so, they may feel compelled to reach into their bag of secrets.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: