Government by Half-Truth

The president owes us an explanation. The North Koreans had already told him about their nuclear weapons at the time Congress was debating war with Iraq. But he kept this information secret from the House and Senate. And he failed to mention it in his address to the American people in which he urged quick passage of a war resolution.

Yet the secret was obviously crucial to the ongoing debate. If North Korea, not Iraq, had nuclear weapons, were we targeting the wrong member of the "axis of evil"? Were we running the risk of waging two preventive wars at the same time? Wouldn't this outstrip our self-defense resources if al-Qaeda attacked again?

The Constitution expressly reserves the authorization of war for Congress, giving special recognition to its unique importance. The president has no authority to undermine Congress' role by withholding key facts central to its decision. Perhaps he might find that national-security considerations require him to withhold some facts from the public, but in such a case, he should provide them to Congress in a secret session.

Yet the president was no more forthcoming in private than in public. According to leading senators, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld failed to mention it in a secret briefing to the Senate. The news about North Korea was made public, however, only hours after the president signed the congressional resolution on Iraq.

In response to emerging criticism, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice have said that the administration shared its North Korean intelligence with key members of congressional committees. But Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Senate majority leader, said that he got the news from the newspapers, and Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was briefed two hours before the news was made public. So the administration's reach doesn't seem to have extended very far.

In any event, the Constitution grants Congress -- not particular congressmen selected by the administration -- the power to make war. The House and the Senate simply cannot discharge their war powers in the dark, and it is the president's job to provide the necessary light. By holding back, the president has violated fundamental principles of the separation of powers.

There is no clear precedent for this breach, if only because Congress normally authorizes war in response to a hostile attack. While there have been disputes about the underlying facts, as in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Congress' attention was -- appropriately -- focused on the precipitating incident.

But one of the unnoticed implications of the administration's new doctrine of preventive war is that data manipulation will be a recurring danger. The world is a dangerous place, with lots of risks coming from lots of places. But to gain public support for a preventive strike, presidents will predictably focus on one threat at a time. To stay "on message," they will be tempted to suppress embarrassing facts about other threats so as to concentrate attention on a single target. Yet if Congress is to discharge its constitutional responsibilities, it must resist the dangers of myopia.

We are creating an important precedent for the future. If the administration's breach of protocol is left unchecked this time, the way is open for more distortions the next time. When Congress returns after the elections, the North Korea affair should be a key priority. The administration should be obliged to explain its conduct at hearings, and Congress should be given an opportunity to reconsider its authorization of the Iraqi war. We simply do not know whether a majority of both houses believes that war with Iraq is still justified despite the prospect of a second confrontation with North Korea. If it turns out that a majority of members are having second thoughts, the congressional leadership should commit itself to a new vote. The nation should go to war only after due deliberation on all the facts. And nothing less.

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