- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2000

Like a new dawn, when black turns to blue, blue goes pink, and pink begets sunshine, Ronald Reagan ushered in the end of the Cold War, now more than a decade ago. In that moment, when the Berlin Wall fell, national security began a barely perceptible slide in the public mind toward secondary status as a political issue. No alarm bells sounded, but military service and national security seemed, almost overnight, quaint preoccupations of the Kennan and Kennedy generations. Within the Clinton administration, a similar shift appears to have occurred.

In what seems a cascade of avoidable security breaches by the Clinton administration, a gradual fog of carelessness, dismissiveness, indignation and indifference has quietly settled over the guardianship of our national security. Gone is the new dawn. Here is a frightening disconnect between high-placed guardians of our nation’s secrets and the unforgiving nature of foreign security threats.

Last week, CIA Director George Tenet told a Senate committee that his predecessor, John Deutsch, was “sloppy” when Mr. Deutsch reportedly took highly classified documents home, put them on his home computer, used the same computer to access Internet (pornography) sites and received e-mail from a “former Russian scientist.” In response, Mr. Tenet “stripped Mr. Deutsch of his security clearances” last August, 32 months after a CIA investigation into Mr. Deutsch’s “computer practices” began in December 1996.

How could a high-ranking administration official, much less the acting director of the CIA, not have known classified documents do not leave the office, in fact are routinely re-placed in a pre-approved safe? How could such an official not have known his home computer is not secure, indeed is a likely hacker target? How could he not have been briefed on the vulnerability of his hard drive to outside intrusion?

More simply: How could he not have paused to see the obvious security threat posed by e-mail opened from a former Russian scientist, e-mail that could easily have fed the content on his hard drive back to the source? In short, the national security threat was perceived as so low that Cold War precautions, rules, procedures and common sense did not apply. As a result, Mr. Tenet testified there was no “sure way to tell” that the “enormously sensitive material” had not been compromised or “hacked into by international adversaries.”

Mr. Deutsch’s lax attitude, however, is not unique. What it highlights is a pattern of ambivalence toward national security precautions within key segments of the Clinton administration. During the 1995 House Waco investigation, for example, White House Counsel Abner Mikva argued that White House documents surrounding the incident were too sensitive to be disgorged to Congress. A few mornings later, on July 15, 1995, Congress awoke to find a senior associate White House counsel had taken highly sensitive “copies of original notes” concerning Waco home with her, and these notes, placed in a gym bag, had reportedly been stolen from her car. The question that ricocheted around the Capitol, and remains relevant today: How could a White House counsel holding a top secret clearance have failed to treat such notes with greater care? What other documents were treated so glibly, with what unknown consequences?

Enter example three: On Jan. 17 of this year, an inspector general (IG) reported that “State Department security officials failed to sweep scores of rooms for bugging devices and repeatedly failed to account for highly classified documents,” and that “lax security procedures” characterized handling of “sensitive compartmented information (SCI), the government’s most sensitive intelligence reports.” Indeed, “140 offices handling those materials had never been swept for listening devices,” a fact that came home to roost when a Russian spy was apprehended listening to meetings in one such room by remote bug. How many other bugs were not discovered, or were disposed of after sensitive material was lost? These are legitimate and deeply troubling questions. The same IG found “239 of the 1,890 SCI reports distributed from the super-secret National Security Agency’s Cryptological Support Group had not been returned … .”

Enter example four: Energy, elections and China. Where does one begin? Computers, clearances, oversight, intelligence, nuclear secrets, access and attitudes all compromised. The comeback indignation, denial, turf protection and minimization.

National security is not a game or a ruse. Even today, the United States has a substantial number of detractors, enemies and not-so-well-wishers. Caution is as relevant as ever. What has changed is the nature of the threat to our society and intelligence repositories. Today, our foreign enemies are more diffuse, tech-savvy and attentive to our carelessness. They are no less jealous of our freedoms, and no less committed to undermining U.S. interests. They are better-funded and more often tied to the narcotics trade, adversaries in the Far East and proceeds of international crime. They are clever, Net-ready, ruthless, linked to terrorist organizations, and quick to pounce on U.S. complacency. In short, the foreign threat is more insidious.

There should be no refuge in the fog of indignant detachment a fog that conveniently obscures issues about which we must think. Truth, Mr. Reagan once said, is a stubborn thing. Respecting history, it is time to consciously re-orient ourselves. We must think again about national security. Our national leaders must protect it assiduously, because there are those who assiduously strive to imperil it. National security is precious, even post-Cold War. Both the administration and Congress should perform regular sweeps of sensitive offices, follow document-handling procedures, insist that staff and top policy-makers get security refreshers, discipline themselves to learn the high-tech threat, and recall that the fog of indifference can be as dangerous as the dead of a Cold War night.

Robert B. Charles was chief of staff and chief counsel to the House Government Reform National Security Subcommittee (1995-1999) and led congressional delegations to the Middle East and South America on security issues (1996-1999).

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