THE DISCLOSURE that the Bush administration asked the CIA to help discredit a blogger who was critical of the Iraq war should be treated as the possible relapse of a bad disease.
The United States showed a democracy's ability to correct its mistakes when, in the wake of the enemies list of the Nixon era, the CIA was forbidden to collect, keep, or disseminate information on US citizens. But retired CIA counterterrorism official Glenn Carle recently told The New York Times that the Bush White House had asked the intelligence agency to produce damaging personal information on Juan Cole, a Mideast specialist at the University of Michigan who is known for his often acerbic blog.
The CIA claims it can find no record that it provided "private or derogatory information" about Cole. The Times reported, however, that intelligence officials confirmed that an assistant to the agency's deputy director for intelligence sent e-mails to a CIA analyst in 2006 asking for information about Cole. And in a remark that falls well short of a vigorous denial, John Negroponte, who was director of national intelligence in 2006, said he had no memory of the incident but that figures in the Bush White House might have asked others in his office about Cole.
At the least, the CIA's inspector general needs to investigate. If requests to dig up dirt on Cole did come from the White House, the inspector general inquiry should determine who authorized them, what the responses were, and whether the administration sought to discredit anyone else. As Cole put it on his blog, "I know I am a relatively small fish, and it seems to me rather likely that I was not the only target."
The matter is serious enough that congressional intelligence committees should investigate as well. Such inquiries are easily viewed through the prism of partisan politics, but abusive practices by one administration make it all too easy for subsequent ones to justify similar tactics. Presidents and lawmakers of both parties recognized as much when they made it illegal for the CIA to spy on Americans, and that prohibition must be enforced.