When secrets are used as political ammo

A controversy has blown up over how much awareness there was in the Bush administration, before Sept. 11, of the potential for a terrorist attack. The administration is resisting congressional demands to see all the relevant documents.

For all of my journalistic bias in favor of disclosure, I can appreciate Vice President Cheney's position that some information, involving sources and methods, must be protected. But his argument would carry greater weight were it not for two facts.

First, something I learned in my reporting days, is that government agencies have a way of leaking classified information when it serves their purpose, especially when that purpose is putting down another agency. The current uproar about what the president knew and when he knew it revolves around two classified documents.

One is a memorandum dated July 5, 2001, from FBI agent Kenneth Williams in Phoenix, urging his superiors to investigate men from the Middle East training in American flying schools and who might have connections with Osama bin Laden. The memorandum was not acted on, the CIA says it was only belatedly advised of it, and the president learned of it only recently.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, along with Attorney General John Ashcroft, was told about the memo a few days after Sept. 11, and still did not find it necessary to advise the White House. And that made the FBI look bad.

The other document in question is the CIA's Aug. 6 briefing memorandum for President Bush titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US." When that leaked, it was along with word to The Washington Post that the White House was disappointed in the CIA because the analysis lacked focus and provided no new intelligence. And that made the CIA look bad.

It becomes harder to convince Congress of the need to keep secrets when these secrets seem to be selectively leaked by those in charge of protecting them.

The other problem about recognizing the need to keep national security secrets is that the administration has acquired a reputation for being generally obsessed with secrecy. For example, the White House is resisting giving Congress information about Enron contacts with the Cheney energy task force. It is also sitting on Reagan-era documents that were, by law, scheduled to be released last year. The Justice Department withholds information about witnesses held for interrogation in the Sept. 11 investigation.

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge is not allowed to testify under oath before congressional committees, bearing a figurative "secret" stamp on his brow.

The administration would get more support for keeping real secrets if it didn't try to make so much secret, and, then, if it did a better job of shielding its secret documents from interagency feuds.

• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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