On Tuesday, Senator Bill Frist and Representative Dennis Hastert, responding to a story written by The Washington Post’s Dana Priest on secret CIA "black site" prisons scattered throughout the globe, demanded a joint investigation into the origin of the article. The two sent a letter to the chairmen of the Congressional Intelligence Committees, saying that "such an egregious disclosure could have long-term and far-reaching damaging and dangerous consequences and will imperil our efforts to protect the American people and our homeland from terrorist attacks." Right-wing blogs and pundits immediately declared their support for such an inquiry, smelling blood in “so-called liberal media" waters.
Only problem for Hastert and Frist, as we’ve seen time and again with foreign policy screw-ups in this administration, is that all roads tend to lead back to the vice president – the present case being no exception. Trent Lott, who appears to be about as far off the Republican reservation as one could get, spilled the beans on Wednesday that "a lot" of the details in the Post story were identical to information the vice president had shared with a group of Republican lawmakers a day before the story appeared. Oops. As Lott told The Los Angeles Times, "Information that was said in there, given out in there, did get into the newspaper…. I don’t know where else it came from … it looked to me that at least one of those reports came right out of that room."
But this is no joke – especially to Vice President Cheney, who first disseminated the information to Republican senators, one of whom – or one of whose aides – presumably leaked the story to Priest. As the Post noted on Wednesday, the CIA General Counsel’s Office has already contacted the Justice Department to inform them that classified information was released in the Post story.
With this newest revelation, we again find the vice president in the middle of an investigation centering on leaked intelligence. The "black sites" case and the Libby indictment, which came only weeks before, have led the media to finally begin to take a hard look at how the Bush administration has handled sensitive intelligence information in the past, primarily in regard to the intelligence they used to construct a case for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It’s heartening to finally see some mainstream attention paid to these issues, but too many reporters are treating the story like it’s new, when in fact we’ve known about the slapped together intelligence for a few years now.
For example, The Los Angeles Times recently ran a long article looking at ways Cheney and members of the Bush administration actively challenged CIA reports "that countered their expectations or that disagreed with information they had received through their own intelligence channels."
I wrote about this back in 2003 in The Book on Bush (which was written that summer and released in early 2004):
The vice-president’s visits (together with his influential chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby), ‘sent signals,’ (according to senior CIA employees who shared their feelings with reporters), "that a certain output was desired from here," said another senior agency official. Other usual visitors included Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz, and DOD’s number three, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith, who also kept up the drum beat. "They were the browbeaters," a former defense intelligence official who attended some of the meetings in which Wolfowitz and others pressed for a different approach to the assessments they were receiving told The Washington Post. "In interagency meetings," he said, "Wolfowitz treated the analysts’ work with contempt."
And as Daniel Benjamin pointed out on Monday in Slate, "Cheney’s connection with intelligence and, particularly, Pentagon intelligence is not exactly new. The transmission lines for many of the bogus claims in 2002 and 2003 about the purported ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida ran from the civilian Office of the Secretary of Defense through Cheney’s office … Cheney’s team was producing the basic justification for going to war."
So why all the surprise on the part of the press corps about a story that they no doubt already know so well? After all, back in November 2003, Newsweek’s Mark Hosenball, Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas wrote a long article spelling out Cheney’s involvement in the faulty intelligence, writing that "Cheney has been susceptible to ‘cherry-picking,’ embracing those snippets of intelligence that support his dark prognosis while discarding others that don’t. He is widely regarded in the intelligence community as an outlier, as a man who always goes for the worst-case scenario and sometimes overlooks less alarming or at least ambiguous signs." The piece reports that in the lead up to war, "Cheney in effect created a parallel government that became the real power center."
Even when the intelligence community did provide solid, untainted analysis, the administration tainted it before releasing it to the public, undermining its integrity and angering intelligence professionals. Occasionally, this anger bubbled over into public view. Numerous former officers, speaking on behalf of their former colleagues who had either been intimidated into silence or believed that their code of professional conduct prohibited their speaking publicly, were quoted in the media objecting to what they considered to be a determined campaign on the part of the administration to undermine the integrity of the intelligence process in support of the war. Patrick Lang, a former head of Middle Eastern affairs in the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a reporter that when analysts authored reports skeptical about Iraq’s WMD capabilities, "they were encouraged to think it over again." Moreover, when analysts warned that the Iraqi people might not welcome an invading force and that the Shiite clergy might cause particular problems, "The guys who tried to tell them that came to understand that this advice was not welcome," according to a May 2003 Nicholas Kristof column in The New York Times.
The list of examples goes on and on, but the upshot is that while reporters are currently falling over themselves to bring us the story of Cheney’s disastrous role in shaping American foreign policy over the last few years, what we’re really being given is recycled news, now that the damage has been done and the liars revealed.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin.