Monday, July 18, 2005

There Are Some Things George W. Bush Was Not Meant to Know 

Tim Grieve of Salon's War Room reports that the President, when quizzed this morning about Karl Rove's part in the Valerie Plame case, replied "I don't know all the facts. I want to know all the facts." Are we succumbing to easy cynicism when we venture our opinion that the President lied twice in as many sentences?
[W]e have two follow-up questions for the president: First, why don't you know all the facts about the Plame case yet? And second, how is it that you used to know all of the facts -- or at least enough of them to "know" that Rove wasn't involved -- but that you don't know all the facts anymore? . . . .

It seems to us that the president would want to know right now whether the people who work for him can be trusted with the kind of classified information whose release could compromise national security and get people killed. The president has the power to collect that information himself. As McClellan
acknowledged today, members of the White House staff serve at the pleasure of the president. If Bush wants to know what Karl Rove or Scooter Libby or Scott McClellan or Ari Fleischer did with respect to the Plame case, he has every right to call them into the Oval Office and say, "Tell me the truth or you're out the door."

Has he done that yet? The White House wouldn't say back in 2003 -- "I'm not going to get into conversations that the president has with advisors or staff or anything of that nature," McClellan said in that Sept. 29, 2003, briefing -- but now it appears that the answer is no. When the question came up at today's
White House press briefing, McClellan engaged in a war of words with Helen Thomas before offering what sounded like a concession that Bush has not, in fact, taken the simple step of asking Rove to tell him what he did.
For purposes of comparison, here's an account of what happens when the administration actually doesn't know what's going on and sincerely wants to find out. From the introduction to William M. Arkin's Code Names (Steerforth Press, 2005):
Polo Step is a Pentagon code word for a security classification above Top Secret. The program requires that anyone with access to Polo Step material be "read into" the compartment and sign a nondisclosure pledge. Any discussions about Polo Step activities have to take place in specially cleaned and "swept" rooms, and Polo Step documents must be hand carried or transmitted over approved and restricted communications circuits. Because the existence of Polo Step is itself classified, the clearance and program are referred to outside the world of those in the know simply by the diagraph PS . . . .

I referred to Polo Step in a June 23, 2002, column for the Los Angeles Times, the first public reference to the code name. Noting the revelation, my friend Eric Schmitt, a New York Times Pentagon correspondent, called me to follow up with his own story, which the Times published on its front page on July 5 . . . .

Inside the Pentagon, the compromise of a code name that was itself classified and closely controlled set off alarm bells. Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of Central Command and the officer responsible for Iraq war planning, wrote in his autobiography, American Soldier, that he called Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "I'd like everyone in OSD [the office of the Secretary of Defense] and the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] who knows the details of our planning process to be polygraphed -- and prosecuted if they're discovered to have leaked Top Secret information."

"I think it is so egregious, so terrible, that I decided to have an investigation," Rumsfeld said at a July 22 press conference referring to compromise of war planning for Iraq. "Anyone who has a position where they touch a war plan has an obligation not to leak it to the press or anybody else."

The Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI), working for Rumsfeld, set about determing how the tightly controlled Polo Step material had been compromised. Investigators interviewed, friends tell me, more than 1,000 Pentagon officials, military officers, and defense contractors, many of whom didn't even have Polo Step clearances, many more than once. Military officers were threatened with being "red lined" -- that is, losing their own security clearances. The message inside the Pentagon was clear: Only Rumsfeld would speak for the vast department. There would be no discussion or debate about assumptions behind the looming Iraq war. By the time the investigation was winding down at the end of 2003 (after the Iraq "war" had already been fought), OSI had spent over $1.5 million trying to uncover the Polo Step leak. It was all to protect a code name, and a well-worn national security habit, threatened by open information and debate.

At the time the initial Iraq war plans stories were published -- just nine months after 9/11 -- the fact that the Bush administration was preparing for a war in Iraq was probably the worst-kept secret in Washington.
UPDATE: More Rovian arcana from Josh Marshall, who flags a number of curious discrepancies between Bloomberg's story on the Air Force One memo and an earlier account in the NYT. Also, we second Marshall's recommendation of related posts by Kevin Drum (who explains why the administration had to flog the bogus story that Saddam had an active nuclear program) and Ivo Daalder (who reiterates just how bogus it was).

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