- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2000

The recriminations have begun in connection with the attack on the USS Cole. Unfortunately, the real scandal is not that a government with Yemen's longstanding ties to international terrorism was given more than a week's notice that one of the United States' premier capital ships would be placed in a highly vulnerable position in its waters for four to six hours.

Rather, it is that the reckless disregard of the fundamentals of physical, information and personnel security that contributed to this debacle are all-too-common practices under the Clinton-Gore administration.

Consider the following illustrative examples culled from just the past few weeks' headlines:

• President Clinton is about to compound the mistake of pretending that Yemen is no longer a nation closely associated with terrorism by dropping North Korea from the State Department's list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (SSOT). This is all the more preposterous insofar as North Korea is arguably the most aggressive abettor of international terror, thanks especially to its aggressive proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ever longer-range ballistic missiles around the world.

The reason is similar to that used to justify removing Yemen from the SSOT list a year or so earlier: The Clinton-Gore administration finds it expedient to politicize or otherwise disregard the relevant intelligence in the service of other priorities. In the case of North Korea, Mr. Clinton attaches more importance to his effort to secure a "legacy" via a visit to Kim Jong-il's prison-state and normalized relations with Pyongyang than he does to an accurate portrayal of the North's continuing contribution to international instability and terror.

• The Clinton-Gore Administration is compounding its practice of politicizing the intelligence community by making CIA Director George Tenet the personification of the United States' self-declared role as "honest broker" in the Palestinian-Israel conflict. By putting the CIA in the position of mediating between the parties, the Agency's ability to perform its principal mission namely, providing U.S. decision-makers with objective information and analysis about the situation on the ground in the Middle East and elsewhere is inevitably compromised.

This is, of course, only a part of what is wrong with the administration's approach to the Middle East. But, as Fred Hiatt the recently appointed and impressive editor of The Washington Post's editorial page, put it in an op-ed article in that paper on Sunday, it is a critical defect: "A failure to speak the truth not only damages America's moral standing; in the long run, it will also damage its effectiveness as a mediator. A minimum requirement to be an honest broker is honesty."

• Another example of the "failure to speak the truth" in a manner that impinges on the nation's vital interests came to light in the New York Times last week. It turns out that, in 1995, Vice President Al Gore signed a secret agreement with then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin "which essentially exempted Russia from American sanctions on arms deliveries to Iran," sanctions that were ironically required pursuant to a statute Mr. Gore co-sponsored when he served in the U.S. Senate. As a result, the Kremlin apparently sensed it has been given a green light to continue to sell advanced conventional weapons to Tehran to this day.

According to the Times, moreover, former top CIA expert on nonproliferation Gordon Oehler believes "this deal likely emboldened Moscow to ignore other agreements, particularly on sales of missile and nuclear technology to Iran. It was one more of these strange deals that Gore and Chernomyrdin had that were kept from people. If this had been disclosed to Congress, the committees would have gone berserk, absolutely. But the larger problem is, if you have these under-the-table deals that give the Russians permission to do these things, it gives the signal that it's OK to do other things."

• The low regard in which senior Clinton-Gore officials hold the fundamentals of national security is particularly evident in the behavior of George Tenet's predecessor as CIA director, John Deutch. As this newspaper's intrepid national security correspondent, Bill Gertz, reported last week: "[Dr.] Deutch compromised some of the most sensitive defense programs by improperly transferring data about ultrasecret Pentagon programs to computers he used to send e-mail and access the Internet." There is no way of ascertaining now how great the resulting damage will be, but it could be as as defense officials who spoke to Mr. Gertz on background put it that "the case is potentially the most damaging security breach in the Pentagon's history because of the secrets involved."

• Regrettably, security practices in a government like fish tend to rot from the head. We now know Bill Clinton is personally responsible for truly appalling misconduct in this arena.

One of the juicier tidbits in Boris Yeltsin's memoir published last week is his noting he was aware of Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky before it became public knowledge. The former Russian president allows as how he felt it unnecessary to bring it to the president's attention because he believed Mr. Clinton could "handle it." It may or may not be true that Mr. Yeltsin was so discreet, but it strains credulity that others, like the Communist Chinese, would fail to take advantage of such information if the need arose. Might this leverage in addition to the illegal campaign contributions, hush money, postgovernment-service employment opportunities and other inducements help explain Mr. Clinton's kowtowing and concessions to Beijing?

The president's behavior is especially reprehensible since he knew at the time that foreign intelligence services might be monitoring his phone sex and other telecommunications with Miss Lewinsky. The fact that he nonetheless engaged in it speaks volumes about not only his reckless disregard for national security but the low standard with respect to security that he set for the rest of his administration. It will be nothing short of a miracle if all that such personal and collective security malfeasance costs the nation are the lives of the men and women murdered last week on the USS Cole.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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