- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 4, 2001

"There can be no substitute for the president's having the best possible intelligence in the world," said former President George Bush in November 1999. Good advice for his son but how consummate that requirement?

One of the biggest problems confronting any president is the torrent of information that floods the White House night and day from Cabinet departments, U.S. intelligence agencies, the media, Congress, knowledgeable friends.

A second problem for the president is to ensure that his subordinates supply him in timely fashion with information essential to policy-making. Third, who decides what is essential? And even after that is decided, when will the president find time to read it? What may seem trivial to the presidential assistant and therefore unworthy of wasting a busy man's time may be crucial for the chief executive of the world's only superpower to know.

One way of dealing with the problem of "need to know" information for the White House is for President George W. Bush himself to set up a code of priorities. In doing so, he is telling his aides what he most wants to know about: Iraq, Middle East, the Balkans, NATO, China and Taiwan, terrorism on the foreign affairs agenda; racism, corruption, environment, appointments to office, budget, taxes on the domestic agenda. Even with well-established priorities, however, the president can still be blindsided because subordinates don't forward messages whose importance they underestimate or they want to give him "plausible deniability" to save him from some embarrassing operation. Such misjudgments can have serious effects on presidential policy and behavior.

A case history which underscores the president's need-to-know problem was described last year in a CIA magazine, Studies In Intelligence, published by its Center for the Study of Intelligence (Summer 2000, No. 11). The underlying message of that article was that had President Truman known about a decryption miracle called "Venona," Joe McCarthy and "McCarthyism" might never have happened.

"Venona" was the operational name given to the U.S. Army's successful program starting in 1943 for intercepting and decrypting Soviet intelligence cables between KGB officers stationed in the U.S. and their Moscow headquarters. These decryptions were kept secret until a few years ago when they were declassified and published. What these documents proved once and for all was that Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and others were Soviet espionage agents.

Such charges had been made in 1949-50 during Mr. Truman's incumbency. All the while that these exposes were in the limelight Mr. Truman insisted that (1) the Republicans had fabricated the loyalty issue, (2) wartime espionage had been minor, and (3) government agencies had contained what espionage there had been. As far as he was concerned, said Mr. Truman, these charges were a "red herring." And yet as he was condemning informants like Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, Venona decryptions showed at least 300 Americans had sold out to the KGB, of whom some 100 had already been identified.

Robert Louis Benson and Michael Warner, official CIA historians, who made a study of Mr. Truman and Venona, wrote in 1996:

"Truman's repeated denunciations of the charges against Hiss, [Harry Dexter] White and others all of whom appear under covernames in decrypted messages translated before he left office in January 1953 suggest that Truman either was never briefed on the Venona program or did not grasp its significance."

Since then Mr. Warner, deputy CIA historian, has sifted through the CIA and other archives and found no evidence Mr. Truman was ever briefed about Venona. Documents uncovered by Mr. Warner show that high Army officers, right up to Gen. Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, debated whether their commander in chief ought to be told about Venona. The then head of the CIA, Rear Adm. Sidney Souers, Mr. Truman's top intelligence adviser, knew about Venona and debated whether to inform his boss but never did. Ex-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his book "Secrecy" dealt with this mishandling which, he said, showed a security system run amok in a bureaucracy that withheld secrets from its own commander in chief.

President Bush, beware.

Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a columnist for The Washington Times

Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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