The price-tag on Richard Nixon's begonias popped into my head when I read the news that U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan had thrown out a lawsuit brought by a member of the Federation of American Scientists to compel the government to tell us what it spent for intelligence in fiscal year 1999 as it had told us in 1997 and 1998. But this time the CIA objected that revealing just this overall dollar amount could aid America's enemies -- and the argument spooked the judge.
It's a curious line of argument that I thought I'd personally smashed to smithereens a quarter century ago. So I was surprised to see that it is back.
Shortly after Nixon's 1972 re-election, I had heard the government was spending a lot of taxpayer money on improvements at the president's homes, in San Clemente, Calif., and Key Biscayne, Fla.
I was Newsday's Washington bureau chief in those days, and the more I inquired, the more the Nixon administration mumbled and stalled. The Nixon White House said the public records could be inspected at the General Services Administration regional office in California; out there they told me that, oops, the records were back in Washington and would be made available for my inspection by the GSA Administrator himself, a political appointee named Arthur Sampson.
I arrived with my colleague, Newsday reporter Pete Bowles, at Sampson's huge office, which was roughly the size of a football field. But instead of boxes of documents we saw a half-dozen bureaucrats -- lawyers and press officers from GSA and other agencies -- sitting around a conference table, which was at the opposite end zone from Sampson's magnificent desk.
After perfunctory introductions and handshakes, Sampson asked blandly what they all could do to help me. I said I didn't need their help, just their public records. Sampson explained that all government's expenditures at Nixon's houses involved the president's security, and were thus confidential. To which I replied that surely the government could provide the total figure taxpayers had paid for, say, begonias and all other landscaping at the Nixon home in San Clemente.
No, said Sampson -- and then he truly offered this explanation: If enemies of the president knew the price of the begonias and other flora, it might tip them to the nature of the sophisticated protective equipment that was being shielded by the plantings.
Across from me I could see the rep from the Secret Service was biting his lip -- as if he feared he might guffaw at the idiocy of that GSA explanation. So I turned to Sampson and said I had never heard "a more asinine answer from a government official."
But fortunately for the nation, I went on, Sampson and the GSA have nothing to do with security -- that's the Secret Service's job. So I asked the Secret Service rep: Does the Secret Service wish to officially associate itself, on the record, with that asinine position? Does the Secret Service believe there is any security reason for withholding the total spent on landscaping at San Clemente?
No, he replied, the Secret Service does not contend that the president's life or security could be compromised by making that information public.
Sampson's face was redder than a stop light, and his assembled acolytes were very occupied with their cufflinks or counting the holes in the ceiling tiles. By the end of the day, we had our story: The government had indeed spent an untidy fortune to improve the beauty and value of Nixon's personal property. (Years later, the Secret Service man told me that interview was his favorite moment in a career of safeguarding legitimate Secret Service secrets.)
And of course, the president's security was not compromised one whit by the public disclosure of how much we'd spent on Richard Nixon's begonias. Just as the nation's security would not be compromised one whit if the CIA told us -- every year -- what it told us for the past two years: the price-tag on our government intelligence. Indeed, our CIA directors past and present, John Deutch and George Tenet, have given speeches and testimony that told the world far more crucial information about the CIA's plans and goals.
Tell it to the judge.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.