Matt Welch

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© 1986-2004

residency the right to lord it over intelligence: the perhaps irresistible temptation to politicize or cherry-pick sensitive data, and show to the public only what they need to know in order to support your policies.

When Dick Cheney wasn't satisfied with the quality of "filtered" information he was receiving from the Central Intelligence Agency, he created his own in-house data processing staff, to "stovepipe" the raw stuff directly to the top. As Kenneth Pollack, author of the influential war-supporting book The Gathering Storm, told The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh last year, Cheney's spooks dismantled "the existing filtering process that for 50 years had been preventing the policy-makers from getting bad information. They created stovepipes to get the information they wanted directly to the top leadership.... They were forcing the intelligence community to defend its good information and good analysis so aggressively that the intelligence analysts didn't have the time or the energy to go after the bad information."

Information, historically, tends to warp under the glare of intense political pressure, and cherry-picked data has a tendency to sour, as did Bush's State-of-the-Union claim on Jan. 28, 2003, that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's confident WMD assertion two months later, "We know where they are."

What might be more disturbing, in terms of what it says about the culture of the Bush administration, is how information has been manipulated in matters having nothing to do with national security. For instance, in the run-up to last year's US$395-billion Medicare bill, the chief actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Richard Foster, was instructed orally and in writing by Thomas Scully, who was then the Medicare chief, to suppress his own estimates showing the bill would cost as much as $551-billion, according to Foster. One month after the legislation was safely signed into law, the administration announced that -- whoops! -- the price tag was actually $534-billion.

There have also been multiple instances of this famously leak-averse administration using leaks and selective declassification to punish critics. Valerie Plame was outed as a CIA "operative" by anonymous "administration officials" 10 days after her husband, Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador to Gabon, wrote a damning New York Times op-ed accusing Bush of "manipulating intelligence" about Saddam's alleged uranium-shopping in Africa, a story Wilson had personally investigated on behalf of the government and judged untrue.

More recently, former counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke, in the midst of his highly publicized and critical testimony to the 9/11 Commission, was outed by the administration as the anonymous source for an August, 2002, background briefing to Fox News that was more favorable than Clarke's March, 2004, statements.

Is the Bush administration, then, uniquely venal in its manipulation of information (or, Worse Than Watergate, as the recent book title by Richard Nixon's former White House counsel, John Dean, has it)? Impment and judged untrue.

More recently, former counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke, in the midst of his highly publicized and critical testimony to the 9/11 Commission, was outed by the administration as the anonymous source for an August, 2002, background briefing to Fox News that was more favorable than Clarke's March, 2004, statements.

Is the Bush administration, then, uniquely venal in its manipulation of information (or, Worse Than Watergate, as the recent book title by Richard Nixon's former White House counsel, John Dean, has it)? Impossible to say, though I'd wager probably not -- it's still truly shocking, 30 years later, to read about the profound abuses uncovered by the post-Watergate Church Committee hearings (which led, cyclically enough, to many of the same restrictions Bush is now trying to undo).

But that's all the more reason for vigilance today. If the next president turns out to be the Antichrist, then the Antichrist will take the reins of a government that has greatly expanded its ability to conduct affairs under the cover of secrecy, and set a tone where public scrutiny and insider criticism is distinctly unwelcome.

Faith in the American public's ability to improve upon the secret deliberations of its government is as old as the republic itself. It may be ugly and uncomfortable, but it's the best way we know to prevent abuse, and bring distributed intelligence to the table. The security of the country is too important to leave to the experts.

© 1986-2004; All rights reserved.

© 1986-2004; All rights reserved.

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© 1986-2004; All rights reserved.

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