In my teens, I covered sports for the school newspaper. Basketball games. Football games. Even track meets and wrestling matches.
But the biggest story I tackled happened off the field. One fall, word came that some football players snuck into a farmer’s barn just before the homecoming parade and trashed the freshman class’s homecoming float.
That’s when I learned one of the most-enduring maxims of journalism: no information gets out unless someone wants it to get out.
I find that dictum rings true when even covering Congress today.
So I began nosing around to find out who wrecked the freshman homecoming float. And like most scoops, they fall in your lap. At the most unexpected time. From the least likely of sources.
Sure enough I found out just which players vandalized the float. Not by meeting a trench-coated informant at a parking garage in Arlington, Virginia. But from a football player who voluntarily spilled his guts to me about who was involved during Mrs. Kesselring’s third period German class.
Had I been more clever, I would have tagged my football player source with the moniker “Deep Route.”
Sure enough, I wrote the article based on that source. And I never betrayed the trust of Deep Route. Two football players were suspended. The principal summoned me to the office to talk about the article. He was mainly curious to find out how I unearthed who was involved, despite his efforts to keep things quiet.
And Deep Route squealed because he didn’t approve of what his fellow players did to the homecoming float.
So imagine my predicament as I try to parse the latest flap between Congress and the intelligence community.
It stems from the alleged existence of a top-secret intelligence program and whether the CIA deliberately tried to shield Congress from leaning about it. Moreover, Republicans claim Democrats are just trying to make the intelligence community look bad and inoculate House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) from criticism. In the spring, Pelosi declared that the CIA lied to her about how they interrogate suspected terrorists.
Appearing on FOX News Sunday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) says that CIA Director Leon Panetta “did tell us that he was told that the vice president had ordered that the program not be briefed to the Congress.
“This looks to me suspiciously like an attempt to provide political cover to (Pelosi) and others,” countered Sen. John Cornyn.
Meantime, the CIA has said repeatedly it always fully briefs Congress on its activities. But a gang of seven Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee contended last week that the CIA doesn’t always do that. And they leaked a letter asking Panetta to correct a May comment that his agency is always up front with lawmakers.
At the same time, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) accused the CIA of lying in a separate letter. And at least two Republicans on the House Intelligence panel, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) and Mike Rogers (R-MI) say that the alleged program in question was just an “idea” and never fully implemented. So from their vantage point, they don’t think the CIA failed in its duty to inform Congress about what it was up to.
There’s yet another angle. At least two Democrats on the Intelligence Committee are deliberately staying clear of the fray: Reps. Dan Boren (D-OK) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD).
Ruppersberger said he didn’t sign the gang of seven letter because he felt it would be a “distraction” and “would continue to play to the political rhetoric that is not needed.”
“This isn’t about politics. This is about national security,” he added.
Still, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) was more than happy to watch Democrats challenge each other and wrestle with Panetta.
"I think the catfight going on within the Democratic Party should continue," Boehner chortled.
So, as a reporter, this is exceptionally hard to filet. I don’t know what to believe. And it deals with intelligence. That means I can’t go pull a document to confirm things. And I just have to trust on instinct anyone I talk to as I try to cleave the political fog.
But lost in this is something more critical: the veracity of the intelligence community.
Certainly almost every lawmaker would assert that the intelligence services are populated by dedicated, driven individuals. But the varnish on the intelligence services wore thin over the past few years.
First, recall problems with intelligence leading up to the war in Iraq. The Bush Administration cited weapons of mass destruction as the major reason the U.S. invaded. In fact, former CIA Director George Tenet famously told President Bush that evidence of WMD’s was a “slam dunk.” Years later, Tenet told CBS he felt the White House hung him out to dry after no arms were found in Iraq.
To justify the war, the U.S. relied extensively on information provided by Rafid Ahmed Alwan. Alwan was an intelligence source who spooks identified by his code name “Curveball.” Many of Curveball’s assertions about Iraqi WMD’s were discredited after former CIA Director Porter Goss ordered a review of the intelligence he provided.
Furthermore, questions still swirl about the public identification of CIA officer Valerie Plame. Plame is married to Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador the Bush Administration dispatched to investigate whether Iraq tried to secure yellowcake uranium for nuclear weapons. Wilson penned op-eds in 2003 that questioned the justification of the war. Wilson believes the Bush Administration deliberately ID’d the identity of his undercover wife as retribution for undermining the reasons for war.
Finally, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) is one of the House Intelligence Committee members who signed the letter asking Panetta to correct his statement that the CIA always tells Congress the truth. Schakowsky believes the intelligence community is arrogant when it comes to Congressional oversight. She says that some intelligence officials were “contemptuous” of having to explain to lawmakers what they were doing. She says that some officials viewed Congress as “an annoyance” and a “waste of time.”
Now there’s a leak that the special program in question focused on the assassination and kidnapping of al-Qaida operatives. All of this is baffling. But it points to one thing: a potential politicization of U.S. intelligence. Someone leaking the allegation that this program was hidden from Congress by Vice President Cheney is political. True or not, someone wanted to get that out. The fact that the gang of seven leaked its letter is political. Someone wanted that document publicized. Politics is behind the leak of the letter Silvestre Reyes wrote to Pete Hoekstra accusing the CIA of lying. Someone wanted that in the open. What’s tricky is gauging the motivations of the leakers. And while each leak may yield important information, it’s almost impossible to corroborate because it deals with classified, sensitive material.
Back in high school, I received an unexpected data dump from the football player “Deep Route.” His motivation was political. He definitely wanted to pin the deed on two of his teammates. That’s because the whole school was buzzing with rumors of who was responsible. Deep Route wanted to clear the rest of the squad.
The same thing is going on here. The school is murmuring about who defaced the parade float. But there’s a difference. This scandal falls in the intelligence sphere. That means people can talk and chatter and try to place their spin on what happened and who to blame.
And even the best reporters can never corroborate exactly what happened.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.