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November 8, 2003
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REVIEW & OUTLOOK

'Flagrantly Dishonest'
Even the Senate Intelligence Committee isn't safe from Democratic partisanship.

Friday, November 7, 2003 12:01 a.m. EST

One of the last redoubts of peaceful coexistence in Congress has been the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Sensitive matters of national security come before it, and the tradition is for Senators to leave their party affiliations at the door.

So much for that honorable tradition. Senator Jay Rockefeller buried it this week with his ho-hum response to the leak of a strategy memo on how Democrats can exploit for partisan gain the committee's investigation into prewar intelligence on Iraq. Mr. Rockefeller is committee vice chairman, a title accorded the senior Senator from the minority party rather than the usual, more political-sounding "ranking member." But the West Virginia Democrat has either been asleep on the job or he's running a camp for juvenile political delinquents.

The Democratic memo is a hit job, spelling out how to create the maximum embarrassment to President Bush during his re-election campaign. The committee's investigation is not yet concluded, but the Democrats already know what they think. The Administration had "misleading--if not flagrantly dishonest methods and motives," the memo says. "The approach outline[d] above seems to offer the best prospect for exposing the administration's dubious motives and methods," it concludes.

Among the memo's recommendations is how to play Republican Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas for a fool. "Pull the majority along as far as we can," the memo urges, by seeing that Mr. Roberts "co-signs our requests for information." And then? After "we have exhausted the opportunity to usefully collaborate with the majority," the memo recommends that then "we can pull the trigger on an independent investigation." And guess when? "Probably next year."

Far be it from us to be shocked at politics in the halls of Congress. Gamesmanship of this sort is routine when Senators are fighting over the EPA or the FCC. But national security ought to be a different story, and in less polarized times it was. In our political system, Congressional oversight of our intelligence agencies is arguably necessary, sometimes even useful. But for that to be true it has to be mature oversight conducted by grownups, and not by political hacks willing to put election advantage above the vital needs of intelligence.

For one thing, this kind of behavior can't help but have a chilling effect on foreign intelligence sharing. If U.S. allies worry that the intelligence they share with us will be leaked and used for political purposes, who can blame them if they become less inclined to tell us things?

We've often been critical of the CIA, but the Senate committee's high jinks almost make us sympathetic. First the agency is scolded by Congress for not being alarmist enough before September 11. But now it is getting pummeled again by the same Members for being too alarmist about Iraq's WMD programs. Never mind that what the agency did is tell President Bush precisely what it told the Clinton Administration for eight years. After the Congressional second-guessing of the past few months, how many intelligence officers are going to take any career risk and warn about the next potential terror threat?

Mr. Rockefeller refuses to denounce the memo, which he says was unauthorized and written by staffers. If that's the case, at the very least some heads ought to roll. A good place to start would be minority staff director Christopher Mellon, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence in the Clinton Administration.

But we'd say Republicans ought to go further and make this a matter of political consequence. After months of Democratic charges about the "politicization of intelligence" based on little or no evidence, this memo is smoking gun proof of precisely that. A referral to the Senate Ethics Committee seems in order, and we'd even suggest that the entire committee be shut down, cleaned out and reconstituted later, preferably after the next election.

This may seem like political shenanigans, but we've been here before as a nation. With the Church Committee purges of the 1970s, U.S. intelligence gathering was crippled for a generation, arguably right up through 9/11. Given the crucial importance of intelligence to the war on terror, the country can't afford a repeat Congressional performance.

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