The most intriguing story in Washington these days is a subterranean conflict that reporters cannot cover because some of them are involved. A potent guerrilla insurgency has formed in and around the Bush presidency–a revolt of old pros in government who strike from the shadows with devastating effect. They tell the truth. They explode big lies. They provide documentary evidence that undermines popular confidence in the Commander in Chief. They prod the media and the political community to ask penetrating questions of the Bush regime. Doubtless, these anonymous sources act from a mixture of motives–some noble, some self-interested–but in present circumstances one might think of them as “embedded patriots.”
The business of leaks is an everyday thing in Washington and, arguably, the government could not function without them. It is a way to communicate official and unofficial information in a tentative fashion–nudging events in one direction or another without the need to take responsibility for what’s communicated. Reporters participate enthusiastically in the traffic and call it “news.” The process is sustained only because everyone can rely on the journalists’ mock-heroic code of omertà: Never reveal the names of your secret sources–never–even if the revealed “information” turns out to be spurious.
But what has occurred during the past several months is not the normal commerce. A series of explosive leaks–closely held documents and well-informed tips–have altered the course of politics and might very well influence the outcome of this year’s presidential election. Yet we don’t know whom to thank. Who gave the Justice Department’s “torture” memorandum to the Washington Post? Who provided the International Red Cross’s letter of complaints on prisoner abuses to the Wall Street Journal? Who confirmed for the New York Times that Iyad Allawi, the newly appointed Prime Minister of Iraq, had supervised the CIA’s terrorist bombing campaign in Baghdad a decade ago? Who informed U.S. News & World Report that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had authorized the holding of a “ghost prisoner” in violation of international law? Who–someone close to the President?–leaked the “torture” memo written by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales?
We don’t need to know the identities to grasp that these and other over-the-transom “communications” provided forceful and well-timed contradictions to the White House line. It is also obvious that these leaks could not have come from the lower depths of the bureaucracy. The material is too sensitive for wide distribution. Not to take anything away from aggressive reporters, but the leakers clearly targeted the Post, Times and Journal to achieve maximum impact on Washington. The messages are not from some office crank at the Xerox machine but had to originate among sophisticated and highly placed officers of government.
My own surmise–corroborated in conversations with several long-experienced Washington reporters–is that we are probably talking about career military officers and senior civil servants at the Pentagon, Justice Department lawyers and professionals at the CIA or State Department. In practice, sensitive documents are sometimes passed off laterally to former colleagues no longer in government who provide them to the chosen reporters. Some risk to one’s career is required, but these are smart people who know how to cover their tracks. Oddly enough, the brutally buttoned-down Bush White House has not invoked the usual official whine about irresponsible leaks, perhaps because the evidence nailed them so forcefully (and there’s probably more to come). Or maybe the White House is inhibited by the embarrassing fact that its staff faces a grand jury investigation over leaking the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame (even the President has consulted his own lawyer).
Cynical readers may resist this explanation, but the motivations within the permanent government are most likely grounded in principle and patriotism, not narrow partisanship. Among bureaucrats, there is always a current of low-level grumbling about the elected leadership, but career civil servants and military rarely take such provocative countermeasures. In this Administration, the level of disgust and alarm is more palpable because Bush has been willing to trash the accepted norms of behavior and to cross perilous thresholds, unaware of the dangers despite many warnings from the professionals. To people who will be in government long after Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld have departed, the Bush crowd looks like the worst possible combination of qualities–it is both incompetent and ruthless.
“It’s a wonderful country in a way,” Walter Pincus, the Post‘s veteran investigative reporter, observes. “People in the government community are really concerned about what can happen. They get upset with themselves when they see things going wrong. So they are willing to raise questions. But I also think for some the failure to stand up before the war started is emboldening them now.” The concerns of these anonymous truth-tellers were confirmed in public by the powerful statement issued recently by retired diplomats and military leaders, virtually calling for Bush’s defeat this fall. “We need a change,” they declared. The list of signers was striking because it was top-heavy with Republican and conservative professionals: Reagan’s ambassador to Moscow and his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, George Bush Sr.’s ambassador to Israel and many others.
Whatever their intentions, the leakers have now raised the stakes for the country–posing grave implications that cannot be easily brushed aside. While Bush tries to explain away prisoner abuse in Iraq with the “few bad apples” argument, the White House, Pentagon and Justice Department memos justifying torture establish an official predicate for scandalous government actions that are more than embarrassing. Fundamentally, these are crimes–violations both of US law and of the Geneva Conventions, according to many legal experts. The President himself did not express alarm at these revelations. He turned aside questions as casually as his lieutenants dismissed the Constitution. Thus, an ominous warning light is now flashing for the Republic: the potential for criminal charges running far up the military chain of command, and for the lodging of impeachment charges against this President and for an international tribunal to examine American war crimes. The connecting facts are not yet visible to support these accusations, but a plausible outline for how they may be connected is well exposed. These matters, in other words, could lead to a constitutional crisis as momentous as Watergate, maybe more serious because the offenses are far more fundamental.
Did the President authorize illegal acts? Bad advice from his lawyers is not a defense. Did his Cabinet officers construct rationales to disobey long-settled law and common morality? We will not learn the answers unless responsible, independent investigations are initiated. Very few Americans may wish to go down that road, but the consequences of ignoring the warning light are far worse. The precedent of accepting lawless government and a corrupted constitutional order will lead inevitably to more of both.