Did the Bush White House press U.S. intelligence agencies to gather damaging personal information on a prominent critic of the Iraq war? That's what one former CIA official alleges, in an interview with the New York Times.
Glenn Carle, who was a top counterterrorism official during the Bush administration, charged that in 2005, the White House asked both the CIA and another intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Council (NIC), to dig up dirt on Juan Cole (pictured), a Middle East expert and University of Michigan professor. Cole writes a well-known blog, which has been sharply critical of the Iraq war.
In response, Cole wrote that Carle's allegations "come as a visceral shock," and called for a congressional investigation.
U.S. intelligence agencies are prohibited from collecting information on the activities of American citizens inside the United States. "Obviously, it would be illegal for CIA to collect any non-publicly available information, derogatory or otherwise, on a US citizen … simply because of that person's expressed political beliefs," John Rizzo, who was the CIA's acting general counsel during the period at issue, told The Lookout, via email.
Rizzo said he had no recollection of any of his agency colleagues drawing his attention to efforts to gather information on Cole.
Rizzo also questioned why New York Times reporter James Risen had failed to seek comment from him for the story. Instead, Risen quoted Jeffrey Smith, a former top lawyer for the CIA who left the agency during the Clinton administration, on the legality of domestic spying. "Jeff Smith is a great lawyer and good friend, but I am the guy on whose watch this supposedly happened," wrote Rizzo. "Odd."
(In his comments to the Times, Smith said, "The statute makes it very clear: you can't spy on Americans.")
Risen, a Pulitzer-winning reporter, was recently subpoenaed by the Justice Department after refusing to name his sources for a 2006 book on the CIA. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Lookout.
In the Times report, Carle describes two separate episodes suggesting an effort to gather negative information on Cole, initiated by the White House.
In one, Carle says he was shown an email from a CIA analyst, seeking advice on an assignment. The analyst had been directed by a top CIA official to gather information on Cole.
Intelligence officials told the Times that the assignment had ultimately come from John Negroponte, at the time the director of national intelligence, who had been asked by the White House to find out why Cole had been invited to CIA conferences.
The CIA told the Times it never provided any damaging information on Cole.
But Carle, who retired in 2007, claims that his supervisor at the NIC did. He described a separate episode in which that supervisor, David Low, asked him in 2005: "What do you think we might know about [Cole], or could find out that could discredit him?"
According to Carle, Low continued: "Does he drink? What are his views? Is he married?" Carle said he later saw a memo from Low to the White House, which included "inappropriate, derogatory remarks" about Cole's lifestyle.
"I certainly would not have been a party to something like that," Low told the Times. He acknowledged that he had been curious about Cole but said he didn't remember specifics.
Cole told the Times that the White House "must have been dismayed at what a boring life I lead."
Cole declined to comment further to The Lookout, saying via email that he was traveling abroad. But in a post on his blog Thursday, he wrote that Carle's allegations "come as a visceral shock," and called for a congressional investigation.
"Like Mr. Carle, I am dismayed at how easy it seems to have been for corrupt [White House] officials to suborn CIA personnel into activities that had nothing to do with national security abroad and everything to do with silencing domestic critics," Cole wrote.
If Carle's allegations are true, it wouldn't be the only time that the Bush White House sought to undermine Iraq war critics. After Ambassador Joe Wilson wrote a 2003 op-ed that poured cold water on the notion that Saddam Hussein was seeking to build weapons of mass destruction, White House officials leaked the name of his wife, Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA operative, to reporters.