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Secrets and Lies

The Senate Intelligence Committee's report on prewar U.S. intelligence about Iraq makes for enthralling reading. But almost as interesting are the vast sections we can't read. About 15 percent of the report is bathed in black ink, redacted because the CIA deemed the information classified. But those redactions are highly suspect. First, the CIA tried to black out about half of the report. Then, after protests from Congress, the Agency yielded, to no demonstrable harm. Second, many of the heavily redacted sections deal with the most politically sensitive topics, such as whether intelligence analysts were pressured by administration officials, and the story behind President Bush's claim that Saddam Hussein sought uranium from Africa.

We don't often agree with Trent Lott, but the defrocked Senate majority leader was correct last week when he declared these redactions "totally ridiculous, uncalled for, and counterproductive." Now Lott, along with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, is working to create a new federal commission to govern classified material. We second the notion. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan often argued, our government's system of handing classified material is ad hoc, loosely scrutinized, and prone to abuse. And, since September 11, the problem has gotten far worse. As America hunts for terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, intelligence secrets have become vastly more important to our national political and policy debates. But, at the same time, the Bush administration has shamelessly manipulated classified information for political ends.

Consider the litany of politicized Bush administration classifications. In October 2002, the CIA released a National Intelligence Estimate starkly warning of Saddam's ongoing nuclear programs; later, it emerged that the CIA had redacted a slew of key caveats, including one State Department analyst's doubt of any "compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing ... an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons." The investigation into the September 11 attacks has been similarly stunted. Before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees released their joint report last summer, they haggled for six months with the Bush administration over what portions could be made public. The White House ultimately insisted on blacking out a 28-page section dealing with the critical question of Saudi Arabia's role. At the time, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Shelby estimated that "ninety to ninety-five percent" of what the administration shielded from view posed no threat to national security or intelligence sources, the only legitimate grounds for redaction.

The independent 9/11 Commission has had similarly exasperating struggles, including the long tug-of-war over whether to declassify the famous Presidential Daily Brief that, on August 6, 2001, warned of Al Qaeda's intentions to attack on U.S. soil. With the Commission's report due later this summer, those fights are far from over: Commissioner Tim Roemer recently told The New Republic that the question of how much of his panel's report will ultimately see daylight is shaping up to be "one of the battles of Armageddon."

Almost as galling as this politically motivated secrecy is the way the administration has released classified material to score political points. During this spring's Commission hearings, Attorney General John Ashcroft tried to undermine Democratic Commissioner Jamie Gorelick by releasing secret memos she wrote as a Justice Department official in the 1990s. Around the same time, Condoleezza Rice quoted from a classified national security memo in an effort to discredit former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke. And, each time Bob Woodward has come calling for his insider accounts, he's walked away with armloads of secret documents that cast the president in a heroic light.

For such political whims to infect the classification process is a travesty. We urgently need a new way of handling classified material, one that shifts the burden for classification away from transparency-seekers and onto secret- hoarders. A good start is the Lott-Wyden proposal to create an independent panel of intelligence experts to review declassification requests. This panel would send its recommendations to the White House. The White House would maintain final authority over declassification decisions, but an impartial arbiter would put more pressure on the president to justify secrecy.

In the debates over Iraq and September 11, it is now clear that the classification system has been abused--and, partly as a result, the public has been denied the ability to make informed judgments about war and peace. We can't let that happen again.

This article originally ran in the July 26, 2004, issue of the magazine.