A Culture of Cover-Ups

By PAUL KRUGMAN

New York Times

October 26, 2004

Aides to John Kerry say that if he wins, he'll replace Porter Goss as head of the C.I.A. Let's hope so: Mr. Goss has already confirmed the fears of those who worried about his appointment by placing Republican staff members from Capitol Hill in key positions and raising fears about a partisan purge.

But the flap over Mr. Goss is only a symptom of a much broader issue: whether the Bush administration will be able to maintain its culture of cover-ups. That culture affects every branch of policy, but it's strongest when it comes to the "war on terror."

Although President Bush's campaign is based almost entirely on his self-proclaimed leadership in that war, his officials have thrown a shroud of secrecy over any information that might let voters assess his performance.

Yesterday we got two peeks under that shroud. One was The Times's report about what the International Atomic Energy Agency calls "the greatest explosives bonanza in history." Ignoring the agency's warnings, administration officials failed to secure the weapons site, Al Qaqaa, in Iraq, allowing 377 tons of deadly high explosives to be looted, presumably by insurgents.

The administration is trying to play down the importance of this loss, arguing that because Iraq was awash in munitions, a few hundred more tons don't make much difference. But aside from their potential use in nuclear weapons - the reason they were under seal before the war - these particular explosives, unlike standard munitions, are exactly what a terrorist needs.

Informed sources quoted by the influential Nelson Report say explosives from Al Qaqaa are the "primary source" of the roadside and car bombs that have killed and wounded so many U.S. soldiers. And thanks to the huge amount looted - "in a highly organized operation using heavy equipment" - the insurgents and whoever else have access to the Qaqaa material have enough explosives for tens of thousands of future bombs.

If the administration had had its way, the public would never have heard anything about this. Administration officials have known about the looting of Al Qaqaa for at least six months, and probably much longer. But they didn't let the I.A.E.A. inspect the site after the war, and pressured the Iraqis not to inform the agency about the loss. They now say that they didn't want our enemies - that is, the people who stole the stuff - to know it was missing. The real reason, obviously, was that they wanted the news kept under wraps until after Nov. 2.

The story of the looted explosives has overshadowed another report that Bush officials tried to suppress - this one about how the Bush administration let Abu Musab al-Zarqawi get away. An article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal confirmed and expanded on an "NBC Nightly News" report from March that asserted that before the Iraq war, administration officials called off a planned attack that might have killed Mr. Zarqawi, the terrorist now blamed for much of the mayhem in that country, in his camp.

Citing "military officials," the original NBC report explained that the failure to go after Mr. Zarqawi was based on domestic politics: "the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq" - a part of Iraq not controlled by Saddam Hussein - "could undermine its case for war against Saddam." The Journal doesn't comment on this explanation, but it does say that when NBC reported, correctly, that Mr. Zarqawi had been targeted before the war, administration officials denied it.

What other mistakes did the administration make? If partisan appointees like Mr. Goss continue to control the intelligence agencies, we may never know.

This isn't speculation: Mr. Goss is already involved in a new cover-up. Last week Robert Scheer of The Los Angeles Times revealed the existence of a devastating but suppressed report by the C.I.A.'s inspector general on 9/11 intelligence failures. Newsweek has now confirmed the gist of Mr. Scheer's column.

The report, the magazine says, "identifies a host of current and former officials who could be candidates for possible disciplinary procedures." But although the report was completed in June, Mr. Goss has refused to release it to Congress. "Everyone feels it will be better if this hits the fan after the election," an official told the magazine. Better for whom?

What really happened on 9/11, or in Iraq? Next week's election may determine whether we ever find out.