Bush White House has sudden leaks to plug
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration, until now considered one of the most effective ever at controlling information, is suddenly struggling to plug leaks that threaten political embarrassment and, officials say, harm to national security.
FBI investigators last week had been interrogating staff of a congressional panel probing intelligence failures of Sept. 11, and may take the unprecedented step of using lie detectors on them.
After a public display of anger by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Pentagon officials have begun an inquiry into who gave newspapers draft war plans for a possible attack on Iraq.
And the State Department took the highly unusual step last week of detaining a news reporter at its Foggy Bottom headquarters in an effort to find out who leaked a classified diplomatic cable that contained embarrassing information on the department's visa program.
Top administration officials have said from the beginning of President Bush's term that they are serious about enforcing the laws that make it a crime to leak classified documents. But not until now has it become fully apparent how vigorous they are willing to be.
The cases also demonstrate the limits on how tightly any administration can control the flow of information. Although Bush's team is well known for keeping the lid on — even cabinet members were unaware of Bush's plan to create a new homeland security department — the President's team has not been able to control everyone in the executive branch or Congress.
And questions are beginning to arise about the wisdom of even trying to root out the sources of recent leaks.
William Kristol, who was chief of staff to former Vice President Dan Quayle, said the government should only mobilize against leaks that genuinely threaten lives and national security.
"There's not much evidence that any of the leaks here are of that character," said Kristol, who is now editor of the Weekly Standard magazine.
The leaks investigation on Capitol Hill was launched last month after news organizations, citing congressional sources, disclosed contents of a classified briefing by the ultra-secret National Security Agency.
In closed-door testimony, NSA officials reportedly acknowledged that the agency had intercepted al-Qaida messages on Sept. 10 saying "tomorrow is zero day" and "the match begins tomorrow" but had not translated the messages from Arabic until Sept. 12.
Within hours of the NSA officials' testimony, those messages were being reported on television and the Internet.
Angered by the disclosure, Vice President Dick Cheney called the chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees demanding a crack-down. The Florida lawmakers, Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, and Rep. Porter Goss, a Republican, responded by sending a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft inviting an inquiry.
Among the questions staff faced was whether they would be willing to submit to lie detector tests, according to one aide.
The aide said that to his knowledge the legislative branch has never submitted to lie detector tests by the executive branch. If the FBI is serious about pursuing polygraph tests, the aide said, it could set the stage for a showdown between the branches.
One aide said that when asked the question, he replied by saying that members of the committee, and not their staffers, would have to make such a decision.
The Pentagon inquiry began after the Los Angeles Times and later The New York Times published the broad outlines of a planner's proposal for attacking Iraq. The proposal called for the Pentagon to use land-, air- and sea-based forces to hit the country from three directions.
Rumsfeld said in a television interview this week that the document appeared to be from a lower level planner.
Yet Rumsfeld told the CNBC TV interviewer: "I'd like to see (the leakers) behind bars."
State Department security officials detained reporter Joel Mowbray of the National Review magazine on July 12 after Mowbray said during a daily briefing at the department's headquarters that he had a classified cable from the U.S. embassy in Riyadh about embarrassing problems with the granting of visas in Saudi Arabia.
Some critics, including some conservative members of Congress, have complained that an accelerated visa program has opened U.S. borders to Saudis who may pose security threats.
Mowbray was detained for about 15 minutes, he said in an interview, while Diplomatic Security Service officials sought to find out whether he had the cable with him. State Department officials said that Mowbray was stopped because his comments to chief spokesman Richard Boucher indicated that he had with him a copy of the cable. In those circumstances, they said, the security officials could not simply allow him to leave the building without trying to recover it.
Mowbray had criticized the visa program in a series of magazine articles, on a subject that has become a sore point with State Department officials but celebrated among conservatives who believe the department is too permissive.
For conservatives, the subject "has real resonance," said Kristol. "They don't like the State Department, and they don't like Saudi Arabia even more."
The detention of a news reporter alarmed some First Amendment activists.
"I don't remember anything like that happening in my lifetime," said Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, a group that favors greater disclosure of government information.
Many administrations have mobilized efforts to try to halt leaks, including Richard Nixon's "plumbers" unit from the Watergate era.
But many legal experts say leak investigations tend to be frustrating, and often fruitless, undertakings, in part because secret information is distributed so widely and so quickly among officials.
For example, former FBI Director Louis Freeh told Congress that because of this problem, the FBI was unable to pinpoint who had leaked the information that former security guard Richard Jewell was under suspicion for the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics. It turned out that Jewell was falsely accused.
"It's often the case that people 'know' who did it, or think they know, but don't have the proof," said Jeffrey Smith, former general counsel at the CIA.
Under such circumstances, officials sometimes talk privately to reporters about what they believe.
In one telling sign of just how prickly a subject leaks can be, an internal report on the issue by the Justice Department has been bottled up for months, amid infighting within the administration.
The report, commissioned by Congress last year, is supposed to weigh in on what government can do to curb leaks, and whether additional legislation is necessary.
A draft of the report was completed months ago, recommending against new legislation. But it has been held up largely by opposition from CIA Director George Tenet, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Tenet is said to be dissatisfied that the report doesn't advocate more aggressive enforcement of leaks laws by the Justice Department.
Tenet's views pit him against officials in the Justice Department, who believe their agency carries too much of the unpleasant burden for investigating leaks, and say the CIA itself has tended to mete out mild punishment for agency employees caught disclosing classified material.