Pat Roberts and the game of classified information

The administration has concealed the National Intelligence Estimate since April by classifying it. Why does Pat Roberts suddenly want it declassified?

Published September 26, 2006 1:21PM (EDT)

On Saturday, the New York Times reported that the classified National Intelligence Estimate -- which represents the consensus report of the American intelligence community -- concluded "that the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse" and "has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism." The Times also reported that the NIE report had been "completed since April," but was immediately classified by the Bush administration and its conclusions therefore concealed since then.

The NIE findings are a potent political weapon for Democrats, who have seized on its conclusions to argue that the administration has worsened the terrorist threat. Monday, one of the administration's most loyal supporters, Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Pat Roberts, demanded that the full NIE report be declassified and its contents made publicly available (a demand supported by the ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller). Roberts' rationale for his declassification demand had nothing to do with any national security concerns, but instead was transparently political.

According to the Associated Press report, Roberts claims that the portion of the NIE that was reported by the Times is incomplete and paints a distorted picture of the report's conclusions: "The public discussion has been given the 'false impression' that the National Intelligence Estimate focuses exclusively on Iraq and terrorism. 'That is not true,' Roberts said, noting that the committee has had the report since April. 'This NIE examines global terrorism in its totality.'"

Roberts' argument makes no sense. Either the conclusions in the NIE are classified or they aren't. If they are not classified, then they ought to have been released six months ago. Americans should have had the benefit of these assessments in debating foreign policy and terrorism issues -- especially issues about Iraq -- and, at the very least, should have be able to review them in advance of the upcoming midterm elections. If there is nothing secret in the report, why was it classified?

Conversely, if it was proper from the beginning to deem the NIE classified and to conceal its contents, what has changed? Why would Roberts want the report released now? Either a desire to enable the administration to rebut the Times article (by using other parts of the NIE to do so), or a belief that other parts of the report boost the administration's position, is plainly an improper motive for the Intelligence Committee chairman to call for the release of classified information.

As intelligence chairman, Roberts has had access to the NIE since April. If it was not legitimately classified, why hasn't he been calling for its release since then? And if it was legitimately classified, why would he want classified information released now, simply because the Times reported on a small part of the report? That doesn't seem like a very responsible treatment of classified information by Roberts.

Why, it almost seems as if the classification power is being used for political, rather than national security, ends, whereby politically harmful information is concealed and released only when doing so is politically beneficial or necessary. Could someone ask Sen. Roberts what caused him suddenly to call for the declassification and release of the NIE, and why he wasn't urging that before now?

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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