Today's Washington Post adds one more to the long list of Bush administration screwups, this one all the worse because it goes to the heart of our efforts to monitor al Qaeda and bin Laden:
A small private intelligence company that monitors Islamic terrorist groups obtained a new Osama bin Laden video ahead of its official release last month, and around 10 a.m. on Sept. 7, it notified the Bush administration of its secret acquisition. It gave two senior officials access on the condition that the officials not reveal they had it until the al-Qaeda release.
Within 20 minutes, a range of intelligence agencies had begun downloading it from the company's Web site. By midafternoon that day, the video and a transcript of its audio track had been leaked from within the Bush administration to cable television news and broadcast worldwide.
The founder of the company, the SITE Intelligence Group, says this premature disclosure tipped al-Qaeda to a security breach and destroyed a years-long surveillance operation that the company has used to intercept and pass along secret messages, videos and advance warnings of suicide bombings from the terrorist group's communications network.
Forehead, meet hand. Here, you have a number of pathologies working at once. An administration with a record of mishandling classified information, and at times using it for political purposes, takes a hot secret and plasters it all over town, blowing an intelligence-gathering operation in the process.
Then there's the contracting issue. With the Blackwater scandal, Congress is finally starting to debate why it is the government uses contractors for ... just about everything, including fighting wars. And it's pretty clear that the contracting system that has emerged is not a system for actually getting things done. Instead, it has become a way to transfer politically and logistically difficult tasks into a kind of bureaucratic netherworld where they are insulated from scrutiny and accountability.
But this goes both ways. Contractors should be accountable - they shouldn't be allowed to screw up (in Blackwater's case, indiscriminately killing people), then just walk away. But the government should be accountable too. If a contractor is producing valuable intelligence, the government should handle it professionally - not screw the contractor and walk away.
This is Management 101. But the official response that the Post's Joby Warrick got from the intelligence community amounted to "move along, nothing to see here." (Today, the White House promised, yes, a leak investigation.)
"We have individuals in the right places dealing with all these issues, across all 16 intelligence agencies," said Ross Feinstein, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Sadly, we're still in "heckuva job" mode.
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