The Wiretappers That Couldn't Shoot Straight

By FRANK RICH

New York Times

January 8, 2006

ALMOST two weeks before The New York Times published its scoop about our government's extralegal wiretapping, the cable network Showtime blew the whole top-secret shebang. In its mini-series "Sleeper Cell," about Islamic fundamentalist terrorists in Los Angeles, the cell's ringleader berates an underling for chatting about an impending operation during a phone conversation with an uncle in Egypt. "We can only pray that the N.S.A. is not listening," the leader yells at the miscreant, who is then stoned for his blabbing.

If fictional terrorists concocted by Hollywood can figure out that the National Security Agency is listening to their every call, guess what? Real-life terrorists know this, too. So when a hyperventilating President Bush rants that the exposure of his warrant-free wiretapping in a newspaper is shameful and puts "our citizens at risk" by revealing our espionage playbook, you have to wonder what he is really trying to hide. Our enemies, as America has learned the hard way, are not morons. Even if Al Qaeda hasn't seen "Sleeper Cell" because it refuses to spring for pay cable, it has surely assumed from the get-go that the White House would ignore legal restraints on eavesdropping, just as it has on detainee jurisprudence and torture.

That the White House's over-the-top outrage about the Times scoop is a smokescreen contrived to cover up something else is only confirmed by Dick Cheney's disingenuousness. In last week's oration at a right-wing think tank, he defended warrant-free wiretapping by saying it could have prevented the 9/11 attacks. Really? Not with this administration in charge. On 9/10 the N.S.A. (lawfully) intercepted messages in Arabic saying, "The match is about to begin," and, "Tomorrow is zero hour." You know the rest. Like all the chatter our government picked up during the president's excellent brush-clearing Crawford vacation of 2001, it was relegated to mañana; the N.S.A. didn't rouse itself to translate those warnings until 9/12.

Given that the reporters on the Times story, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, wrote that nearly a dozen current and former officials had served as their sources, there may be more leaks to come, and not just to The Times. Sooner or later we'll find out what the White House is really so defensive about.

Perhaps it's the obvious: the errant spying ensnared Americans talking to Americans, not just Americans talking to jihadists in Afghanistan. In a raw interview transcript posted on MSNBC's Web site last week - and quickly seized on by John Aravosis of AmericaBlog - the NBC News foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell asked Mr. Risen if he knew whether the CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour might have been wiretapped. (Mr. Risen said, "I hadn't heard that.") Surely a pro like Ms. Mitchell wasn't speculating idly. NBC News, which did not broadcast this exchange and later edited it out of the Web transcript, said Friday it was still pursuing the story.

If the Bush administration did indeed eavesdrop on American journalists and political opponents (Ms. Amanpour's husband, Jamie Rubin, was a foreign policy adviser to the Kerry campaign), it's déjà Watergate all over again. But even now we can see that there's another, simpler - and distinctly Bushian - motive at play here, hiding in plain sight.

That motive is not, as many liberals would have it, a simple ideological crusade to gut the Bill of Rights. Real conservatives, after all, are opposed to Big Brother; even the staunch Bush ally Grover Norquist has criticized the N.S.A.'s overreaching. The highest priority for the Karl Rove-driven presidency is instead to preserve its own power at all costs. With this gang, political victory and the propaganda needed to secure it always trump principles, even conservative principles, let alone the truth. Whenever the White House most vociferously attacks the press, you can be sure its No. 1 motive is to deflect attention from embarrassing revelations about its incompetence and failures.

That's why Paul Wolfowitz, in a 2004 remark for which he later apologized, dismissed reporting on the raging insurgency in Iraq as "rumors" he attributed to a Baghdad press corps too "afraid to travel." That's also why the White House tried in May to blame lethal anti-American riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan on a single erroneous Newsweek item about Koran desecration - as if 200-odd words in an American magazine could take the fall for the indelible photos from Abu Ghraib.

Such is the blame-shifting game Mr. Cheney was up to last week. By dragging 9/11 into his defense of possibly unconstitutional bugging, he was hoping to rewrite history to absolve the White House of its bungling. And no wonder. He knows all too well that the timing of Mr. Bush's signing of the secret executive order to initiate the desperate tactic of warrant-free N.S.A. eavesdropping - early 2002, according to Mr. Risen's new book, "State of War" - is nothing if not a giant arrow pointing to one of the administration's most catastrophic failures. It was only weeks earlier, in December 2001, that we had our best crack at nailing Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora and blew it.

What went down that fateful December is recalled in particularly gripping fashion in a just published book, "Jawbreaker," which, like Mr. Risen's book, is rising on the best-seller list at an inopportune moment for this White House. "Jawbreaker" is the self-told story of a veteran clandestine officer, Gary Berntsen, who was the pivotal C.I.A. field commander in the hunt for bin Laden. Mr. Berntsen is a fervent Bush loyalist, but his honest account doesn't do the president any favors. "We needed U.S. soldiers on the ground!" he writes, to "block a possible Al Qaeda escape into Afghanistan!" But his request to Centcom for 800 Army Rangers to do the job went unheeded.

We don't know whether the Bush order relaxing legal controls on the N.S.A. was in part a Hail Mary pass to help compensate for that disaster. Either way, all the subsequent wiretaps in the world have not brought bin Laden back dead or alive. Though the White House says that its warrantless surveillance has saved lives by stopping other terrorists since then, Mr. Bush has exaggerated victories against Al Qaeda as often as he has the battle-readiness of Iraqi troops. After he claimed in an October speech that America and its allies had foiled 10 Qaeda plots since 9/11, USA Today reported that "at least" 6 of the 10 had been preliminary ideas for attacks rather than actual planned attacks.

The louder the reports of failures on this president's watch, the louder he tries to drown them out by boasting that he has done everything "within the law" to keep America safe and by implying that his critics are unpatriotic, if not outright treasonous. Mr. Bush certainly has good reason to pump up the volume now. In early December the former 9/11 commissioners gave the federal government a report card riddled with D's and F's on terrorism preparedness.

The front line of defense against terrorism is supposed to be the three-year-old, $40-billion-a-year Homeland Security Department, but news of its ineptitude, cronyism and no-bid contracts has only grown since Katrina. The Washington Post reported that one Transportation Security Administration contract worth up to $463 million had gone to a brand-new company that (coincidentally, we're told) contributed $122,000 to a powerful Republican congressman, Harold Rogers of Kentucky. An independent audit by the department's own inspector general, largely unnoticed during Christmas week, found everything from FEMA to border control in some form of disarray.

Yet even as this damning report was released, the president forced cronies into top jobs in immigration enforcement and state and local preparedness with recess appointments that bypassed Congressional approval. Last week the department had the brilliance to leave Las Vegas off its 2006 list of 35 "high threat" urban areas - no doubt because Mohammed Atta was so well behaved there when plotting the 9/11 attacks.

THE warrantless eavesdropping is more of the same incompetence. Like our physical abuse of detainees and our denial of their access to due process, this flouting of the law may yet do as much damage to fighting the war on terrorism as it does to civil liberties. As the First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus wrote in The Huffington Post, every defense lawyer representing a terrorism suspect charged in the four years since Mr. Bush's N.S.A. decree can challenge the legality of the prosecution's evidence. "The entire criminal process will be brought to a standstill," Mr. Garbus explains, as the government refuses to give the courts information on national security grounds, inviting the dismissal of entire cases, and judges "up and down the appellate ladder" issue conflicting rulings.

Far from "bringing justice to our enemies," as Mr. Bush is fond of saying, he may once again be helping them escape the way he did at Tora Bora. The president who once promised to bring a "culture of responsibility" to Washington can and will blame The Times and the rest of the press for his failures. But maybe, if only for variety's sake, the moment has come to find a new scapegoat. I nominate Showtime.