The Bush administration is in the process of establishing a dangerous new precedent in relations between the president and Congress on issues of national security and intelligence -- one that could seriously hamper future presidents of either party.
It’s called caveat emptor (buyer beware).
It goes something like this: If I (the executive branch) provide you (the Congress) with intelligence that proves to be completely wrong and I (the executive branch) exaggerate and hype the meaning of this intelligence and you (the Congress) are gullible enough to vote with me on the basis of this false intelligence and my spin, you are as guilty as sin for your vote and shouldn’t complain to anyone.
There are lots of problems with this approach being taken by President Bush to the decision by Congress -- supported by a number of congressional Democrats -- to commit troops against Saddam Hussein. First, it basically alters -- perhaps forever -- the relationship between the president and Congress on matters of national security.
Throughout the previous administrations of both parties, there has been a level of trust between Congress and the executive branch when the security of our country is at stake. When members of Congress vote to commit troops, they assume that the president is providing them with accurate information and the president and his people are not hyping the intelligence.
The mantra of this president is that Democrats had the same intelligence that the president did and thus should not now complain about the decision to go to war against Iraq when many of them supported that decision.
This brings us to the question of trust.
Intelligence is made available to members of the House and Senate by providing it to the Intelligence Committees of the two chambers. A total of 21 (out of 435) House members serve on the House Intelligence Committee, and a total of 15 (out of 100) senators serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Intelligence provided to those two committees is kept under lock and key in small rooms in the Capitol. Any congressman or senator can go to the committee rooms and inspect the intelligence. Most members do not. They rely on summaries of the intelligence provided to them by the administration, normally done orally in briefings at the White House or in the Capitol.
Congressmen and senators assume that the briefings being given to them by the executive branch are factual and not loaded with hype or spin. The national security of the country is too important for typical political spin.
That, of course, is not what happened this time. Then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and others engaged in an enormous amount of spin, hyping the intelligence to assure Congress that Saddam Hussein was well on his way to developing nuclear weapons and that he certainly had vast supplies of chemical and biological weapons at his disposal.
I attended one of those briefings with Rice at the White House.
So what is the administration’s response now? Members of Congress should not have been so foolish as to rely on Dr. Rice’s presentation; All 435 members of the House and all 100 senators should have crowded into those small rooms in the Capitol and personally inspected every piece of intelligence.
There are several problems with this line. First, the intelligence provided to the congressional committees was incomplete. It did not reflect that much of the information on chemical and biological weapons was provided by a single ultimately discredited Iraqi dissident source (dubbed “Curveball”); that there was dissent inside the administration over the accuracy of this data, and that none of the data had been verified by any of our own operatives on the ground in Iraq.
Additionally, the administration only belatedly acknowledged that there also was dissent inside the intelligence community about Saddam’s progress on developing nuclear weapons. This information was provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee in a National Intelligence Estimate just days before the vote in Congress and was never acknowledged publicly by the administration when making its case to the American people.
Secondly, saddling Congress with a caveat emptor obligation means that future Congresses may never accept information and evaluation of that type of information provided by a future President in times of national emergency. That is more harmful to our nation than anything that has happened in Iraq in the past three years.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel, and is currently a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.