Losing the Paper Chase





The great I.F. Stone made his name as an investigative reporter simply by reading everything he could. A story in Tuesday’s New York Times illustrates the wisdom of that approach.

In the piece, Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt report that a single paragraph in the defense spending bill signed by President Bush in October granted military special forces the authority to pay foreign informants and paramilitaries — a job formerly reserved for the Central Intelligence Agency.

The story is relevant now given The Washington Post‘s report last week that Donald Rumsfeld is working to create a Pentagon spy operation separate from the CIA’s. But one wonders, why wasn’t there any noise about this paragraph back when the bill was signed? It turns out there was, but barely a whisper: The Los Angeles Times reported the story on October 31, two days after the signing.

As for the rest of the media’s silence, timing was probably a factor: The signing occurred mere days before the presidential election. But another likely reason was that reporters simply don’t have the time (or in some cases, the inclination) to read the vast amount of paper the government produces, while also attending background briefings, chasing spin doctors, and filing pieces.

Under the Bush administration, reporters covering the shadowy military intelligence complex are especially busy. In late October, Jehl was juggling the pre-election Osama bin Laden tape, a legal opinion on the Geneva rights of non-Iraqis, the delay of a CIA study on 9-11, and the fallout over Charles Duelfer’s “WMD? What WMD?” report. Schmitt had just returned from Iraq and filed stories on the hunt for bin Laden and the intelligence reform bill, both of which were campaign issues.

So it’s no wonder that they and others didn’t have time to scan to page 276 of the almost 800-page defense bill to read this passage:

The Secretary of Defense may expend up to $25,000,000 during any fiscal year during which this subsection is in effect to provide support to foreign forces, irregular forces, groups, or individuals engaged in supporting or facilitating ongoing military operations by United States special operations forces to combat terrorism.

And that wasn’t the only thing we missed. As the president signed the defense bill, he issued a letter in which he qualified his acceptance of no less than 39 sections of the law. These passages concerned the independence of military judges, the appointment of a special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, “restrictions on the use of the U.S. Armed Forces in certain operations,” and other issues. In the letter, the prez stated that he would obey those sections only “in a manner consistent with the president’s constitutional authority.”

The White House often asserts such exceptions to laws it is supposed to enforce. But given the content of the president’s objections to the “Ronald W. Reagan National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2005” — passed by a Congress controlled by his own party — they probably merited coverage. Yet only Congressional Quarterly appears to have mentioned it. And who has time to read CQ?