If spying leaks are so damaging, why won't the White House shut up?

The CIA chief tells the Senate that intelligence operations have suffered "severe" damage from too many leaks.

Published February 3, 2006 2:11PM (EST)

During Thursday's Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide terrorist threats, CIA Director Porter Goss said that leaks about the president's warrantless spying program and other secret operations have caused "severe damage" to U.S. intelligence abilities.

News flash for Goss: If the Bush administration wanted to keep its secret surveillance secret, it could have done so by using the secretive court Congress established for exactly that purpose. Congress created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. If the administration had cause to engage in the surveillance of phone calls -- if it wanted to listen in on people in the United States who were "talking to al-Qaida" -- all it had to do was get a warrant from that court, and it was entitled to do so in such a shroud of secrecy that even those prosecuted as a result of such surveillance usually aren't entitled to learn anything about the process.

The White House chose a different path. It helped created its own secret spying program, in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and arguably the Constitution, too. And what did the administration do when the New York Times reported on the existence of the program? It talked and talked and talked about it, and it's talking about it still.

We don't much like it when the Bush administration refuses to address issues of national importance. We've taken the White House to task again and again and again for stonewalling Congress and the public on everything from Dick Cheney's energy task force to those photographs of Jack Abramoff. But the thing is, the White House knows how not to talk about something when it doesn't want to talk about it: How many times has George W. Bush given a speech about the Valerie Plame case?

But when it comes to the warrantless spying program, it seems that the White House just can't say enough. Here's the president talking about it at during a press conference in the East Room. There he is talking about it during a chat at Kansas State University. Here he is talking about it again in the State of the Union address.

If the leaks are so damaging, why keep bringing them up? Karl Rove has concluded that the warrantless spying program is an issue the Republicans can use to their advantage, and part of that advantage involves showing that critics of the program aren't just wrong but dangerous. Have leaks about the program made it harder for intelligence agencies to do their jobs? That's hard to know -- for all the talk, Goss and his ilk don't deal in details -- but what's easy to see is that it isn't just the president's critics who'd like to make some political points in the course of debating the program.

Even as he accused Democrats of inappropriate partisanship on the issue, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts engaged in a bit of his own Thursday. "I am concerned that some of my Democrat colleagues used this unique public forum to make clear that they believe the gravest threat we face is not Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, but rather the president of the United States," Roberts said. Suggesting that Democrats were more concerned about civil liberties than safety, Roberts added that "you really don't have any civil liberties if you're dead."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Espionage George W. Bush Pat Roberts R-kan.