First it was the FBI, then the CIA. Now, in the Washington game of leak vs. counter-leak, the National Security Agency is being roasted for apparent missteps leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
A source from among the two congressional committees investigating intelligence deficiencies told reporters that the NSA had intercepted conversations by Arabic-speaking persons - on Sept. 10 - which included such cryptic comments as “Tomorrow is zero hour” and “The match is about to begin.”
The conversations were not translated until the day after the attacks, adding to a growing body of evidence that warning signs abounded but the government's intelligence community was unable to sort it all out.
Concern that the specificity of the leak might have compromised the NSA's intelligence-gathering methods is understandable, but probably overblown.
First, it is well known and a matter of public record that the agency - once known as “The Big Ear” - has the capability to intercept a huge portion of the flow of electronic communications worldwide. We have to assume that terrorists know that since it pops up frequently in the newspaper and on the Internet.
Second, NSA officials have been warning publicly since 1999 that budget cuts had left the agency sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer volume of intercepts and unable to accomplish its early-warning mandate in a timely fashion.
The leak led to red-faced calls of protest from Vice President Dick Cheney to the committee chairmen, and to ominous statements from the White House about possible violations of federal law. As a result, the committees have asked for an investigation of themselves. Since leaks in Washington usually flow from the top, the investigators might talk first to the panel's chairmen, Rep. Porter Goss (R., Fla.) and Sen. Bob Graham (D., Fla.).
It is beginning to look like Mr. Cheney's fit over the leak is more evidence of the Bush Administration's dogged determination to thwart a wider and deeper examination of how Sept. 11 happened and why.
For reasons that seem more political than practical, the administration has adamantly resisted an inquiry by a public commission, as has been the case after such past national calamities as Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, and the Iran-contra affair.
A wide-ranging investigation, if conducted openly by distinguished citizens with no stake in the politics of the moment, would seem to be preferable in the public interest to Congress' hearings, held behind closed doors and subject to the news leak of the day. What we have so far is a public body investigating other public bodies in secret.
But openness is not the modus operandi of the Bush Administration. One former NSA employee even suggested that someone acting for the administration leaked the story to lay the groundwork for reviving the draconian official secrets act floated unsuccessfully last year.
That's the kind of cynicism and distrust engendered by an administration that seems not just willing but intent on conducting the public's business in private.