White House: Don't mess with the spy agency

Thirty years after the event, Jeb Magruder, a Nixon campaign aide, has come forward to say, in a public television documentary, that he actually heard the president on the telephone with campaign chairman John Mitchell, giving the go-ahead for the espionage program.

For those who like historic anniversaries, we are 30 years from the week when things started going downhill for President Nixon.

On July 24, 1973, Nixon wrote to chairman Sam Ervin of the Senate Watergate Investigating Committee, refusing to turn over the Oval Office tapes that the committee had learned about from White House assistant Alexander Butterfield. Eventually, a unanimous Supreme Court ordered Nixon to surrender the tapes. In the tapes, the Senate Committee and the special prosecutor found the "smoking gun" - Nixon's attempt to get the CIA to take the rap for the Watergate break-ins and wiretaps. The CIA, in the person of Director Richard Helms, refused to serve in this obstruction of justice.

Succeeding presidents should have learned from this debacle not to mess with America's spy agency. And yet, the Bush White House has also tried to use the CIA to get it out of an embarrassing situation. In the State of the Union address last January, the administration tried to dramatize the threat from Iraq by saying that Iraq had tried to buy uranium ore from Africa.

The White House was the victim of a hoax - the willing victim, I suspect - based partly on forged documents. And when retired Ambassador Joseph Wilson, after a visit to Niger, blew the whistle on the uranium deal, the question became: Who was responsible for letting the president make that statement?

CIA Director George Tenet was induced to issue a statement accepting responsibility, although he had not cleared the speech. That was bizarre, because the agency had, in fact, fought hard to keep the uranium story out of presidential speeches.

So somebody discovered that a little constructive leaking might be in order, and the next thing you know, Walter Pincus of The Washington Post, who has excellent connections in the intelligence community, came out with a front-page story about the two memos that the agency had sent to the White House last October, three months before the State of the Union, voicing strong doubts about an African uranium deal.

Using the CIA as a front had failed. Only then did White House personnel, like Stephen Hadley, deputy to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, come forward to take the blame.

The Bush White House was learning a 30-year-old lesson: Don't mess with the CIA to solve your problems. The CIA knows more about disinformation than people in the White House do.

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

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