Playing Politics

Politicize intelligence? Who ever heard of such a thing!


A memo outlining a Democratic strategy for criticizing the administration’s use of prewar intelligence, written by a Dem on the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee and leaked to Fox News on Wednesday, has Republicans and conservative pundits fuming, very showily, about Democrats’ partisan opportunism.

“Intelligence issues are clearly secondary to the public’s concern regarding the insurgency in Iraq,” reads the memo. “Yet, we have an important role to play in the revealing the misleading — if not flagrantly dishonest methods and motives — of the senior administration officials who made the case for a unilateral, preemptive war.”

Republicans are overdoing their outrage at the memo, which by Washington standards is fairly mild, for a simple reason: they’re worried the committee, which is looking into charges that the Bush administration essentially cooked intelligence to justify attacking Iraq, will uncover some damaging dirt on the president and his party. And they see an opportunity to undermine the probe, already hampered by the White House’s noncooperation.

The memo also indicates that Democrats intend to use the intelligence failures as an election issue. Democrats should be prepared “to launch an independent investigation when it becomes clear we have exhausted the opportunity to usefully collaborate with the majority,” the memo stated. “We can pull the trigger on an independent investigation at any time– but we can only do so once. The best time to do so will probably be next year.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: “I certainly hope that people are not trying to use this issue, this important issue, for political gain.”

What’s the big deal? Isn’t this standard political fare? Well, yes and no, as the Financial Times explains.

“The House and Senate intelligence committees, which conduct most of their work in classified briefings, have a less overtly political tradition than most congressional committees. But with the war shaping up as a key issue in next year’s presidential election, both parties are aware of the potential political consequences of what the investigations find.”

And so Republicans, making a big show of being angry and hurt, pounced on the memo, portraying it as an attempt to politicize the probe. Just as Democrats accused the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence about Iraq for political purposes, Republicans accuse Democrats of plotting to use the committee’s probe to damage President Bush politically just before the 2004 elections.

Which, of course, is true, as far as it goes, especially now that the economy, which looks to be on the mend, has suddenly become a less effective issue for the Democrats, forcing them to lean more heavily on criticisms of Bush’s foreign policy. But, come on! Virtually all the available evidence points to the Bush administration’s having been less than scrupulous with prewar intel — having politicized it, in fact. Why wouldn’t Democrats want to use it as an issue?

Still, the memo is a gift to Republicans, who have just enough of a case to make their accusations of low partisan politicking stick. The Christian news-service Crosswalk covers the conservative outrage:

“…Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who previously served on the committee for eight years, called the memo, ‘reprehensible.’

‘It is a disgusting possibility that members of the Senate would actually try to politicize intelligence,’ Kyl said on the Senate floor Wednesday, ‘especially at a time of war, even apparently reaching conclusions before investigations have been performed.’ Kyl referred specifically to a portion of the memo that stated, ‘Our additional views will, among other things, castigate the majority for seeking to limit the scope of the inquiry.’ ‘In other words, before something is already done, the plan has already been devised about how they’re going to criticize the majority for something it hasn’t even done yet,’ Kyl observed. ‘This is blatant partisan politics.'”

Of course the probe is highly political, since the answer to the question of who is to blame for the prewar intelligence failures that led to the invasion of Iraq will carry enormous political consequences. And of course Democrats blasting Republicans for what they increasingly believe is a cover-up is outright partisan. The Bush administration’s refusal to hand over to the Senate Committee sensitive information about pre-war intelligence has successfully stifled the investigations thus far. The committee’s Vice-chairman, Democrat, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, said that the memo “clearly reflects staff frustration that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation has not tackled all of the tough issues and frustration with the difficulties we have had obtaining information from the administration.”

CNN reports both sides’ reaction to the White House’s role in the ongoing investigation:

“Rockefeller and Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas sent letters to the White House, Pentagon, State Department and CIA last week complaining the agencies were ignoring requests for key documents and interviews.

Over the weekend, Roberts softened his stance on the White House, saying Sunday he felt there was a ‘spirit of cooperation.’

Rockefeller disagreed. ‘I won’t believe it until I see it. I don’t think it’s in their interest to give us those documents, because I think it’s going to show some things that are very troublesome to the American people.'”

Rockefeller added: “It is disturbing […] that a draft paper describing the rights of the minority to push for a full and fair review of the issues of the committee is being so grossly mischaracterized to try to deflect attention from the real issue.”

But don’t underestimate conservatives’ ability to make this an effective issue that can put the Democrats on the defensive. Although the memo looks for the most part like politics-as-usual, even one Democrat, Senator Zell Miller (D-GA), joined the general public outrage and called for consequences.

In a statement on his website, the senator says:

“I have often said that the process in Washington is so politicized and polarized that it can’t even be put aside when we’re at war. Never has that been proved more true than the highly partisan and perhaps treasonous memo prepared for the Democrats on the Intelligence Committee.

Of all the committees, this is the one single committee that should unquestionably be above partisan politics. The information it deals with should never, never be distorted, compromised or politicized in any shape, form or fashion. For it involves the lives of our soldiers and our citizens. Its actions should always be above reproach; its words never politicized. If what has happened here is not treason, it is its first cousin. The ones responsible – be they staff or elected or both should be dealt with quickly and severely sending a lesson to all that this kind of action will not be tolerated, ignored or excused. Heads should roll!”

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