Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Amateur Hour

Democrats sometimes wonder why Americans have little faith in their ability to handle national security issues. Maybe it's the series of irresponsible, even cockamamie defense proposals that they've offered over the years, including last week's idea of forcing a troop withdrawal from Iraq through a pork-laden spending bill. In other words, you don't get goodies for the folks back home unless you support an arbitary pull-out date from Iraq. And, of course, that measure was narrowly approved by the House, which must be awfully reassuring for California spinach farmers (who get $25 million under the plan), and Al Qaida's Iraq affiliate, which has the reassurance that the new majority party is fully committed to cut-and-run.

It's difficult to top such a feckless plan, but somehow the Democrats have managed to accomplish that feat. With the House plan facing an uphill battle in the Senate, Democrats are thrasing about for compromise legislation that stands a better chance of passage. Compromise measures are sometimes a bit odd, but the proposal put forth by Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor is, err...downright stupid. Senator Pryor proposing a "secret" withdrawal plan from Iraq, with a timetable that would be known only to the White House, the Iraqi government, the U.S. military, and of course, members of Congress.

Pryor told the Washington Post that he's confident the plan would remain secret, because Congress is entrusted with secrets "all the time." Riiighhht. Saying that Congress leaks like a seive would be an insult to seives. Hundreds of Senators and Representatives have access to classified information, along with thousands of Congressional staffers. And many have been quite willing to share that data with friendly reporters, all in an effort to score political points. Barely a year after 9-11, the White House demanded an investigation into leaks from the Hill, where unnamed personnel were passing information on "intelligence failures" to members of the media.

Last year, a Democratic staffer temporarily lost his security clearance after portions of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq appeared in The New York Times. After a predictable protest from Congressional Democrats, the aide's clearance was restored. By party standards, I suppose, his "sins" were relatively minor and deserving of forgiveness. Afterall, Vermont's Patrick Leahy is still serving proudly as a leading Democratic member of the Senate, almost 20 years after he was forced to resign as Vice-Chairman of that body's intelligence committee. As you may recall, Leahy was accused of leaking sensitive information to members of the press--material that compromised U.S. counter-terrorism operations and may have killed a key intelligence asset.

Readers will also note that there have been few (if any) prosecutions of Congressmen or their staffers for revealing classified information. Based on that track record, anyone from the Hill leaking Pryor's "secret" withdrawal plan would little to fear in terms of potential penalties. The same holds true for elements within the intelligence community (which would also gain access to the information). Recent press reports suggest that intel agencies have "stonewalled" Justice Department efforts to investigate the leaks, originating within the community and aimed at damaging the Bush Administration.

In fairness, the legions of potential leakers aren't limited to Capitol Hill and the intelligence community. Members of the administration and the defense establishment also leak, for motives all their own. Even if the "secret" withdrawal date was carefully guarded--say, in a special access (SAR/SAP) program, the number of personnel with access to the information would number in the hundreds, possibly the thousands. In today's "leak" culture, the possibility of preventing disclosure of that information is virtually nil. The odds of actually finding and prosecuting the leaker are even lower.

But, just for the sake of arugment, let's step inside Mr. Pryor's alternate universe for just a moment and pretend that everyone involved can actually keep a secret. That still wouldn't prevent the jihadists from divining our plans, based on the one-way flow of troops and supplies. If the amount of soliders, vehicles and equipment leaving Iraq exceeds the in-bound flow, even the dumbest terrorist can discern that the Americans are on their way out. Time to rachet up the insurgency.

You will observe that the WaPo describes Senator Pryor's proposal as "unusual." If a junior Republican had offered the same plan, the paper would have categorized it more bluntly--and correctly--as just plain dumb. Setting an arbitrary withdrawal date from Iraq is militarily incoherent, whether the timeline is public knowledge or a highly-guarded secret. But, because of his party affiliation, Mr. Pryor is allowed to peddle a brain-dead idea as a serious proposal on Iraq. In some Democratic circles, Pryor is reportedly viewed as an up-and-comer, a possible Vice-Presidential nominee in the near term, and beyond that, a potential Presidential candidate. From our perspective, Pryor's ideas about a "secret" timetable for getting out of Iraq illustrate that he's hardly ready for primetime, just a hack politician who remains unschooled and unserious in the deadly business of national security.


On a related note, check out today's fawning NYT article on Hillary Clinton's "growing" ties with the U.S. military, and her gravitas on defense issues. One currently-serving defense official describes Ms. Clinton as "conversant" in the military, and thoughtful in her questions. That's damning her with faint praise. After more than six years on the Senate Armed Services Committee, she ought to know a little about the military; as for those questions, most are scripted by aides (as they are for all senators), so at least her staffers are thoughtful.

One final thought: the final measure of Senator Clinton's relationship with the military will not be based only on her dealings with the generals. If you want a glimpse of the "real Hillary," talk to uniformed personnel who served in the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) during the Clinton Administration. Selection for a WHCA assignment is extraordinarily demanding; their screening procedures are reportedly the toughest in DoD. Personnel who are selected for WHCA--and can maintain the agency's exacting standards--can remain there indefinitely. Yet, WHCA experienced a mass exodus during the Clinton years, and Ms. Clinton was apparently one of the reasons that many military members left the agency. More on that in the coming days.

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