The Bush-Cheney Administration will be remembered for decades for its shamelessly political manipulation of security classifications. A number of general themes have emerged. One is that when documents are stamped “secret” (or better yet “top secret”) this is far more likely to mean “this would be politically embarrassing to us if it got out” than “this affects the nation’s security.” And “embarrassment” covers a sliding scale. Sometimes it would simply make the administration look stupid or inept. On other occasions, it would actually link people to their crimes—as when torture and other serious mistreatment of prisoners is concerned, or the warrantless surveillance practices which are so much in the news.
In both cases, the “secret” conduct involves felonies. But such things are “secret” only so long as political interests hold firm. As soon as it’s politically expedient to leak secrets, that happens–no questions asked and no investigations launched. Witness two examples of Administration-sourced disclosures of “secrets” just in the last week.
In an interview with Fox News, House G.O.P. leader John Boehner revealed that a FISA court judge had made a ruling against the Administration which blocked a surveillance program. He disclosed details of the ruling and of the program—both of which the Administration had, up to that point, insisted were highly classified and compartmentalized information, the disclosure of which would severely harm national security, as the Washington Post revealed today.
The Administration’s reaction? No problem. Boehner is supporting the Administration’s efforts to secure the amendment of FISA. And, hey, what the hell, it was on Fox News. Apparently, disclosure of classified information is only a problem when Democrats do it and it’s in opposition to the Administration’s various power grabs.
Or consider a second case. Last week, Alberto Gonzales perjured himself repeatedly in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. One of the most egregious of several perjuries had to do with his account of his visit to the hospital bedside of John Ashcroft to extract the ailing attorney general’s signature on a document. Gonzales’s account flatly contradicted that of the vastly more credible former Deputy Attorney General James Comey, and the next day, FBI Director Robert Mueller also contradicted Gonzales, producing what one source call a “new ice age” between the Attorney General and the FBI. In order to try to protect Gonzales from mounting calls for appointment of a special prosecutor or for impeachment hearings, an Administration source leaked to the New York Times and the Washington Post specific information about the changed nature of the surveillance program—which involves data mining—in order to help Gonzales make a case that his irreconcilable statement stemmed from a “different understanding” from Comey and Mueller, not from a conscious falsehood. Again, allegedly extremely sensitive material was passed to the media; it was done by the Bush White House; and it was done to bail out an attorney general in extremis.
All of this points to the role played by security classifications in the Bush-Cheney Administration: partisan politics, 24/7.