Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay have gone to great lengths to inform the nation about their outrage that former national security adviser Samuel Berger might have improperly removed classified materials from the National Archives. DeLay told a news conference that had been called by himself and Hastert to heighten public awareness of the mis-step, "I think it's gravely, gravely serious what he did, if he did it. It could be a national security crisis.''
This newfound interest in Congressional oversight and protection of official secrets is welcome news to those of us who have been watching the work of this Congressional leadership team over the years. There is little question that a lot of people in Washington have become far too fast and loose with information and material that should be kept secret for the protection of the American people. There is also no question that the Congress, and in particular its leaders, have a role in seeing that our laws with respect to the handling of classified information are faithfully observed. The only question is why these two gentlemen have begun to suddenly exercise their responsibility at this particular moment in time. Clearly, there have been numerous violations of government secrecy procedures that were in the past brought to the attention of these two gentlemen that were not acted upon. In many instances these did not pose a merely theoretical possibility of harm but inflicted serious and lasting damage to the nation's ability to protect itself.
Where were these two and their newfound determination to investigate when White House sources revealed the name of an undercover CIA operative? Where was their concern for the nation's security when reports surfaced that unidentified Defense Department officials had illegally provided Ahmed Chalabi with information relating to our capability to decipher the Iranian diplomatic code? Chalabi allegedly passed that security breach on to Iranian intelligence and thereby disabled a major U.S. resource in monitoring the development of Iran's nuclear program. Where was the sense of outrage when a U.S. senator and member of their party revealed to the world that we were intercepting telephone conversations of senior al Qaeda operatives and thereby alerted them of the need to change their communication network and deny us one of our most reliable means of monitoring that organization?
How do these two gentlemen square their recently found concern over national security with the fact that the publication that they use as a principle conduit of communication with the American people, the Washington Times, has single handedly been responsible for an overwhelming majority of leaks of highly sensitive information about our nation's classified weapons systems and intelligence capabilities?
The past failings of these two gentlemen to protect national secrets are not confined solely to errors of omission. When the Knight Ridder news service reported last August that senior political operatives within the administration were attempting to pressure career officials in the Department of Defense to reverse a decision to deny security clearances to an individual they had deemed unworthy, House leaders appear to have done more than sit quietly on the sidelines. House Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Lewis initially told the Wall Street Journal that he would agree to a committee investigation of the Office of Specials Plans where the individual in question was a central figure. Later, presumably after consultation with his leadership, he reversed himself and said that the normal procedures of the Committee in conducting its oversight capabilities would not be followed.
Even the most blatant deviations from accepted security practices at the very top levels of government have previously induced no comment from either DeLay or Hastert. When Bob Woodward reported that President Bush had personally revealed the entire plan of battle for the U.S. invasion of Iraq to a Saudi diplomat, a plan so secret that even our own secretary of state was not permitted to see it, there was not so much as a word of caution from either of these individuals.
So I think it is time that we welcome the speaker and the majority leader to the effort to preserve our secrets. Your absence has been noted and the need for you to play a strong and affirmative role clear.
Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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