NEWS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: The new Cambodia?

U.S. considers new covert push within Pakistan

President Bush’s senior national security advisers are debating whether to expand the authority of the Central Intelligence Agency and the military to conduct far more aggressive covert operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The debate is a response to intelligence reports that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are intensifying efforts there to destabilize the Pakistani government, several senior administration officials said.

Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a number of President Bush’s top national security advisers met Friday at the White House to discuss the proposal, which is part of a broad reassessment of American strategy after the assassination 10 days ago of the Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. There was also talk of how to handle the period from now to the Feb. 18 elections, and the aftermath of those elections. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — It’s never enough just to know what was said; we need to know who was talking.

This is a report that illustrates well the need for newspapers to limit their use of anonymous sources. The key to unlocking the article’s significance is knowing who was talking to the New York Times. On that basis we could attempt to understand the sources’ motives for making this information public. For instance, if the sources are intelligence officials we’d have reason to think they might be talking to the press in an effort to kill a harebrained plan before it gains momentum. If on the other hand the sources are inside the White House, then we’d have to wonder whether a political agenda was trumping the need for operational security. Myers, Sanger, and Schmitt should know the answer, but of course their sacred duty to protect the confidentiality of their sources prevents them from adding meaning that currently only they are in a position to discern. Still, why call it reporting if the reporter is only willing to tell part of the story?

What’s more important? That the New York Times is able to protect the privilege of its access to those in power, or that it uses all its means to hold those in power accountable to the people they represent?

Since the Grey Lady is so firmly wedded to its institutional authority, what can we do but go back to parsing the Times as though we were reading Pravda.

This is what I’m able to glean. President Bush, who was in the White House on Friday, did not attend the meeting. The key players at the meeting are named in the article and since they didn’t include Bush, it seems reasonable to infer he wasn’t there. Too busy? We do know for sure that Defense Secretary Gates wasn’t there, so it looks like this was Cheney’s meeting.

Midway through the article, our steely reporters toss in an idle piece of speculation about why the discussions in the White House were taking place: “In part, the White House discussions may be driven by a desire for another effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.” Does this mean that the Times was told by its sources, this was the main reason for the discussions, but you can’t attribute that to your sources, or was this just some journalistic day-dreaming? Let’s assume the former. And if that’s the case, this discussion may have more to do with domestic American politics than a desire to bring stability to Pakistan.

Perhaps the most revealing lines in the report are these: “The Bush administration has not formally presented any new proposals to Mr. Musharraf, who gave up his military role last month, or to his successor as the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who the White House thinks will be more sympathetic to the American position than Mr. Musharraf…. But at the White House and the Pentagon, officials see an opportunity in the changing power structure for the Americans to advocate for the expanded authority [of the CIA] in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country.” In this changing power structure, the administration’s focus remains unchanged: its interest in working more closely with Pakistan’s military than with its civilians. At the same time, the administration appears to want to communicate indirectly with Pakistan’s military by getting its ideas floated in the press. Is this a case of putting the word out to see if it provokes civil unrest?

It’s starting to sound like Cheney might be on the war path again. Iran is off the table, but maybe Pakistan will provide the CIA with an opportunity to help the administration pull its chestnuts out of the fire before November ’08. If they haul in or kill America’s most-wanted men, the presidential race might be nudged back onto national security, and maybe Bush and Cheney won’t go down in history as the men who destroyed the Republican Party.

Could Pakistan go up in flames in the process, al Qaeda’s leaders elude capture and the war in Afghanistan expand into a full-fledged regional war? These are all risks the vice president might be willing to take.

But I digress. The reporters at Pravda — I mean the Times — could do a bit more to enlighten us, couldn’t they?

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