Another secret intel program?

If Hoekstra isn't complaining about bank monitoring or NSA wiretaps, what else is there?

Published July 10, 2006 1:14PM (EDT)

The most mystifying story to come out of Congress over the weekend is the one about Orrin Hatch: What, exactly, was the conservative Republican from Utah doing using his office to help spring a cocaine-carrying rap producer out of a Dubai jail?

But if you want mystery mixed with larger implications, you can't beat the saga of Peter Hoekstra.

Hoekstra, a Republican representative from Michigan and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is a pretty reliable water carrier for the Bush administration. His last attempt at a news splash: an effort in June to prove that Saddam Hussein really had the WMD the president claimed he had in the run-up to the Iraq war. That push, based on the discovery of a small cache of degraded munitions made before the first Gulf War, didn't get much traction outside Fox News and the far-right blogs. But the press loves a man-bites-dog story, so this weekend's news -- that Hoekstra wrote a letter to the president in May complaining that the administration had failed to brief Congress on important intelligence programs -- was worthy of front-page play in the Times and plenty of talk-show talk.

"I have learned of some Intelligence Community activities about which our committee has not been briefed," Hoekstra wrote in his May 18 letter. "If these allegations are true, they may represent a breach of responsibility by the Administration, a violation of law, and, just as importantly, a direct affront to me and the other Members of this committee who have so ardently supported efforts to collect information on our enemies."

Serious stuff? Well, maybe. It all depends on what these unspecified and still-secret "Intelligence Community activities" are. In an appearance on Fox News over the weekend, Hoekstra said his letter prompted briefings on "some" previously undisclosed "programs," including "at least one major" one. What were they? Hoekstra wouldn't say. We know what they're not: In a follow-up story today, the Times says that Hoekstra wasn't referring to the Treasury Department's bank-transaction monitoring program or to the NSA's domestic wiretapping program.

Is the secret program that had Hoekstra upset on the scale of those? We don't know that yet, either. Hoekstra says the secret programs were brought to his attention by a whistle-blower, which has the National Review speculating that maybe they have something to do with Russ Tice, a former NSA employee who has hinted that the Bush administration is using satellites to spy on U.S. citizens.

But blogger Tom Maguire ponders whether the programs aren't just the WMD "discovery" Hoekstra would like the world to know more about. And emptywheel is wondering less about the specific program or programs involved and more about the reasons for Hoekstra's complaint: Is he so angry about the canning of Porter Goss and so fearful that Dick Cheney may be losing his grip on the intelligence community that he's using complaints about some undisclosed intelligence activities as a vehicle for pushing back?

By Tim Grieve

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

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