We can't possibly discuss NSA spying...unless it helps us

Thursday, May 18, 2006 at 11:50 AM

You may have noticed a bit of an attitude change in the White House over the need to keep Congress in the dark on details of the NSA spying program(s).  Initially, they refused to brief almost everybody, all while publicly offering up the misleading claim that "appropiate members of Congress have been briefed."

Democrats on the Intelligence Committees kept insisting that they had a right to be briefed.  For example, a report on CQ last week noted:
Democrats on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said in a memo to other House Democrats Thursday that "five of us are now authorized to receive briefings on the activities of the president's domestic surveillance program."

"But all nine of us remain unanimous in our view that the entire Intelligence Committee must be briefed," said the memo. "The failure to brief the full committee constitutes a violation of the National Security Act of 1947 (as amended). None of us misses the irony that leaks about the program are coming from the executive branch, not us."

But they wouldn't even brief the entire Intelligence Committee of either the Senate or the House.  Why?  It was "we only brief those who are essential."  Or "we can't brief the entire Committee, this program is too secret, too crucial to our security."  

Attorney General Gonzalez made a show of declining to offer up even innocuous details to the Committees in his testimony before them.

Then..."never mind."  The full Intelligence Committees would be briefed (by General Keith Alexander, according to Tony Snow).  So what happened?  If it was too dangerous to brief the full committee before, why is it okay now?

I've got two explanations.

1. Hayden's Nomination

When Bush nominated Hayden for head of the CIA, he immediately got indications that Hayden's confirmation hearing would dwell on the NSA program(s), and that dwelling would include making a point that even the Intelligence Committees haven't really been briefed.

Well, that's all different then, isn't it?  Don't want to get a nomination all bogged down, don't want any negative press coverage lingering on the front pages.  Did we say it was too secret to brief the whole Committee?  Never mind.

Of course, this indicates that the failure to brief the full Committees just might have been more about secrecy and control, those two staples of Bush life, than it was about the inherently confidential nature of the information. Which can make it a bit tricky to explain the change of heart.  So From Wednesday's Press Briefing with Tony Snow:

Q Going back to the intel briefings that are happening today. Previously, Alberto Gonzales said that this is one of the most classified programs, perhaps the most classified program in the United States government, and that is why no more than the gang of eight can be briefed. What's changed?

MR. SNOW: Well, again, what's changed is, as I tried to explain, the dynamics of having hearings -- and I suppose you could say, to a certain extent, General Hayden's appearance has been a driver here, because the committee chairs have said that what they want to make sure is that people are fully briefed on this, and they want to make sure that the committee members are fully briefed. So we're responding to the requests from Chairmen Roberts and Hoekstra on this issue.

Q So had they asked sooner, the President would have considered it?

MR. SNOW: Don't know. That's a big "if," and I'm not going to get into that.
Q Tony, yesterday, the President was asked by Terry about the surveillance program. He said, "The program he's asking about is one that's been fully briefed to members of the United States Congress and both political parties. They are very aware what is taking place." It's something he said over and over.

MR. SNOW: Right.

Q Why -- if that was true yesterday, why would you need to brief more people -- if they were fully briefed already, if Congress really has been --

MR. SNOW: No, no, no. He's talked about -- and we've already been through this -- it was a gang of seven or a gang of eight depending -- so not everybody on the Intelligence Committee was fully briefed in on this. And so what's happening now is that the full memberships of the Intelligence Committees -- this is not the case that every member of Congress is going to get a full briefing on this. Instead, it's being limited to the appropriate jurisdictions.

Q -- has really been fully briefed, because some Democrats have complained that they have not been fully -- even the gang of eight -- that they were only given limited details, they really were not fully briefed, and that the President has not been telling the truth on that.

MR. SNOW: Neither you, nor I have sat in on the classified briefings. Here's the key. Every -- why don't we find out what happens at the brief; if somebody comes out and says they weren't fully briefed, then I'll go back and find an answer for you. But this all seems to be characterizations and people's characterizations of conversations and it's very confusing.

What precisely is it that I can help you with on this?

Q If the President keeps saying that the key members of Congress have been fully briefed -- he said that yesterday, right?

MR. SNOW: Yes.

Q What has changed today that he has to fully brief more people?

MR. SNOW: What has changed -- okay, in other words, why is it that we're briefing all of the Intelligence Committees rather than part? Again, I'll refer you back -- because the committee -- it was in the judgment of the committee chairs that all of their members needed to be briefed so that you didn't have to get into the position of compartmentalizing the hearings with General Hayden, and so on. What we're doing is we're taking up the advice of the committee chairs and following their recommendation.

Q Some of these leaders have been asking for the briefing for months now. And there's -- and Pelosi has been asking for it, Jane Harman has said that she hasn't been given as much detail as she'd like.

MR. SNOW: Right.

Q And now, suddenly, what's changed that the President is now responding to the committee chairs?

MR. SNOW: Jessica, how many times do I have to answer the same question? I've answered the same question the same way eight times now. It's not going to change.

Q But until now, no one behind that podium has ever said, well, we'll deal with the committee chairs. They said it was at the discretion of the President who he's going to brief.

MR. SNOW: The President has used his discretion to respond to the concerns of the committee chairs. (Laughter.)

2. Russell Tice

Tice is the ex-NSA intelligence analyst who has been increasingly vocal about the nature and danger of the NSA program(s). He was fired last January, and accused of mental instability, etc., although his evaluations were pretty good until he was "crazy" enough to start talking about the NSA program(s).

Last week, CQ reported that Tice said:

...the Senate Armed Services Committee has invited him to testify sometime next week about "very sensitive programs and operations at NSA and DoD (Department of Defense) that likely have violated the law and the constitution."
"The exact day next week has not been set," Tice said. "Looks like it may be Tuesday or Friday in the Hart Senate Office Building's Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) secure conference room."

AND, the two factors may be related, since Tice planned to tell the Armed  Services Committee about "...the involvement of Gen. Michael Hayden, who was the director of NSA at the time."

Once again, we have a White House that cherishes secrecy, that accuses those who try to pry open their secrets of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, but can itself start to give up those secrets as soon as it finds that to be an expedient approach.

AND of course they remain The administration that knew too little, until proved otherwise, constantly denying that they could possibly have prevented a whole host of disasters that have occurred on their watch, but only until some reporter or blogger dredges up information to the contrary.

And yet they seem confused about why the public increasingly considers the administration to be  untrustworthy. Amazing.