Monday, October 17, 2005

Top secret, part trois

One reason the Bush Administration has been slow in sounding the bird flu alarm is that bird flu was "off message." The message, of course, is the Global War on Terror (GWOT). But bird flu was the rotten fish on the dinner table. It reached the point where it couldn't be ignored, especially after the rest of the world had sounded the alarm long ago and gotten in line for a Tamiflu stockpile order ahead of the US. And of course then Katrina came along and put a stake through the heart of the "keep us safe" President's second term in office. Even now, the control of the message is not with CDC, the logical locus, but at the Secretary level, with Michael Leavitt. That's OK, as long as this level does the job and isn't just another way to spin the message.

Unfortunately, message management seems to be the order of the day. We have already posted twice (here and here) on the "Top Secret" briefings of congressional leaders. Since they contained almost no "Top Secret" information, it is natural to wonder what that was all about. Congressional leaders are also wondering.
Members of Congress are questioning why the Bush administration recently offered them confidential briefings about avian influenza. In meetings earlier this month in a secret room in the Capitol, representatives of the Health and Human Services Department and the intelligence community gave a "bird flu" presentation to congressional leaders and staffers that included at least one slide classified "top secret." But three officials familiar with the briefings, who asked for anonymity because the material is still classified, say the sessions contained little, if any, information those in attendance had not already heard from the media. The "top secret" element of the presentation, the officials say, was intelligence information raising questions about whether more than one foreign country was thoroughly monitoring, and disclosing the extent of, the spread of bird flu. (Newsweek)
The "classified information" related to questions about whether some countries (presumably China and Russia) were forthcoming or diligent about the status of bird flu in their country. Big deal. The blogs and newsmedia have been full of speculation about this for months. No one in their right mind believes at face value what these countries are saying about bird flu within their borders. You don't need to divulge clandestine sources to make this a believable proposition, nor would it serve any purpose to do so. But there is another narrative the Bush Administration is pushing. They want to get back to the message:
"One bird-flu issue that U.S. agencies are monitoring is whether terrorists could use a bird-flu pandemic to cause mass casualties in America. Scientists recently reconstructed a live version of the deadly 1918 Spanish-flu virus; a U.S. official familiar with intel activities, who also asked not to be named because of the sensitive subject matter, says analysts were trying to keep tabs on whether terrorists could somehow duplicate this feat or otherwise exploit a flu outbreak. There is at present no evidence any terrorist group has tried to dabble in this form of bioterrorism.
Of course there's no evidence. We've already discussed this here, so we won't repeat the reasons why this is a non-sensical idea. It's only merit seems to be that it it is consistent with the "message."

Bird flu. GWOT. Same thing, right?