The Secret War to Come
If Bush wishes to maintain public support for an unseen war, it will be in his interest to keep the large egos of Congress somewhat in the know and on his side. But in the past, secret warriors in the White House have maneuvered to remain unburdened by Congressional busybodies. The overseers of Congress ought to bear in mind that the Bush White House hired Elliott Abrams for a senior National Security Council post, showing little concern that he pleaded guilty to misleading Congress during the Iran/contra scandal. And the Administration has contemplated handing an NSC post to Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, a former CIA counterterrorism official indicted for lying to Iran/contra Congressional investigators. Both Clarridge and Abrams were pardoned by Bush I.
Few precedents suggest that Congress can effectively monitor an extensive secret war. No legislators are speaking in public yet about how to supervise such an endeavor. "We've mainly been reacting to events and not looking too far ahead," says an aide to one prominent liberal Democratic senator. Another such aide remarks, "My guy is concerned but hasn't thought about what to do. There's a fine line between what's appropriate to be kept secret and what's not." One intelligence committee aide notes, "Congress is just beginning to wonder about how to oversee a secret war." There is one certainty: It will be awfully difficult for any lawmaker to confront the White House regarding its handling of such a war. The don't-rock-the-boat tradition in Congress--particularly the Senate--is most powerful regarding classified matters.
Despite the Administration briefings, most members may not be informed enough to challenge the White House, since legislators who don't serve on key committees--a majority of Congress--will likely be shut out of the information flow. "After Afghanistan, we may never know what's going on," says a House Democrat who does not serve on the relevant committees. "Some of us are trying to figure out how to make clear that we want information. We don't know yet how to do it. Dick Gephardt is not laying out a Democratic strategy or thinking about how to be a loyal opposition. When the war started I was in my district and people said to me, 'Don't they need you back in Washington?' It was embarrassing to say, 'No, I don't know anything, and I'm not needed there.'"
Left-in-the-dark lawmakers won't be able to turn to the media for help, because a secret war serves up problems for the news business too. If there is another reality, separate from the White House version, will the press be able to discover it? Like Congress, the media do not boast a strong track record in keeping tabs on White House secret wars--like the preparations for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the secret war in Laos in that same decade and the Reagan Administration's covert war against Nicaragua. On the other hand, cable networks crave One Big Story these days and have ratings incentives to pursue details of the secret war. The Internet makes it harder for media organizations to sit on information they might be queasy about publishing. Still, major news outfits will probably have trouble establishing a fix on this planetwide war and regularly penetrating the world of clandestine conflict.
As Bush's war on terrorism proceeds, how can the public be confident that what is being done in its name, with its tax dollars, is reasonable? Can it depend upon Congress to monitor the war thoroughly and to withhold funds if the secret war goes awry? Probably not. Can it rely on journalists to unearth the full truth of this war? That may be asking too much. The public will probably not be supplied the information necessary to evaluate the war's conduct. That will be one more uncertainty of life post-9/11. As Bush said recently, "All of us are going to have to adjust.