Richard Reeves

Faith, Dopes and Secrecy

NEW YORK -- So, the CIA has been forced to declassify the summary of an investigation by its own inspector general saying that 50 or 60 agents and officials had a great deal of information as early as January 2000 that might have prevented the carnage of Sept. 11, 2001.

The 19 pages, finally and grudgingly released more than two years after they were written, are devastating, confirming suspicions that the National Security Agency refused to give the Central Intelligence Agency transcripts of telephone conversations between al-Qaida conspirators, and the CIA did not tell the Federal Bureau of Investigation that two of those conspirators were in the United States.

The responsibility for that level of incompetence, said the summary, rests primarily with the CIA director at the time, George Tenet. That is, of course, the same George Tenet who was awarded the country's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, by President Bush on Dec. 14, 2004.

The medal was awarded that same day to Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the military to easy victory in Iraq, without any planning for what to do after the battle and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's government. The medal also went to J. Paul Bremer, who was sent to Iraq as an American Caesar, and who ignored looting, disbanded the Iraqi army, and stripped away any experience and expertise that existed in the defeated country by dismissing all members of the former ruling Baathist party -- while somehow losing billions of dollars of our money.

"Three Blind Mice" was the headline of London's Daily Telegraph in reporting the White House ceremony honoring Tenet, Franks and Bremer.

I would put it this way, then and now: Abideth in Washington, faith, dopes and secrecy, but the greatest of these is secrecy.

The faith of George W. Bush's White House comes down to this: God will provide, so why should we worry ourselves? Bad things will not happen to or be done by good people. And the dopes get the medals.

But it is secrecy that is the most dangerous and will be the most damaging legacy of these Bush years. This president is not the first to want to govern in secrecy -- Richard Nixon comes to mind -- but he is certainly the most small-minded. When it comes to information, this White House, as we know, refuses to accept that either Congress or the courts is an equal branch of government and wants almost all its actions and regulations classified under "executive privilege." It is reclassifying formerly public information, both current and historical, and is in the process of effectively dismantling the Freedom of Information Act.

But that is not all. This is from the "Wheels" column of The New York Times, written by Christopher Jensen:

"If you want to know something as simple as who heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, don't bother to ask the safety agency's communications office. Without special permission, officials there are no longer allowed to provide information to reporters except on a background basis, which means it cannot be attributed to a spokesman.

"Without such attribution, there are few circumstances under which most reporters will report such information. ... The agency's new policy effectively means that some of the world's top safety researchers are no longer allowed to talk to reporters or to be freely quoted about automotive safety issues that affect pretty much everybody."

Stuff like that is not really aimed at the press. This administration has made it clear that it concedes no legitimate public purpose to what was once called the Fourth Estate. Maybe they're right about that. But the real target of internal policies is controlling the flow of information to the public. If such policies are designed to protect corporations from concerned or angry consumers -- and they are -- then it is the people themselves who are the real targets.

What the people know and when they know it is the engine of democracy. What we don't know or what we find out too late will hurt us. And that is the idea: The secrecy is necessary to protect the dopes and hide the incompetence. Protect them from whom? From the people; secrecy slowly but very surely throttles democracy.

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