Press Box

Taking a Leak. But Being Picky.

Frist and Hastert are awfully choosy about which leaks they want investigated.

Republican leaders Sen. William Frist and Speaker Dennis Hastert are demanding a congressional investigation into Washington Post reporter Dana Priest’s Nov. 2 Page One revelation about “black sites“—the secret prisons where the CIA stashes and interrogates some of its “most important al Qaeda” suspects. The “covert prison system,” as Priest described it, includes facilities in Thailand, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and a number of Eastern Europe countries that she declined to name at the government’s request.

But the duo doesn’t want Congress to get to the bottom of the establishment of a terrorist prison system. They’re not concerned with the administration’s concealment of the system from nearly all members of Congress charged with oversight of the CIA’s covert operations. They don’t want to be bothered to scrutinize the legality of a network of jails that holds terrorists and terrorist suspects in perpetuity and in secret. And they don’t seem to care that the administration may have encouraged foreign nations to violate the international human rights treaty, which the United States has signed and which prohibits such jails.

No, Frist and Hastert want the leakers unmasked. They want an official determination of whether the information was classified and accurate. And they want an assessment of the leak’s damage to national security.

It takes a lot of moxie for Frist and Hastert to bark so loudly about national security when your vice president’s chief of staff, I. “Scooter” Libby, was the recent recipient of a five-count felony indictment from a grand jury investigating the leak of potentially classified information. If the two leak-busters are so hellbent on rounding up and punishing violators, why don’t they throw handcuffs on their Republican colleague Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama? In 2004, a two-year investigation identified Shelby as the likely source of post-9/11 news stories that contained classified intercepts of Arabic-language messages from the National Security Agency. One of the messages was, “Tomorrow is zero hour,” received the day before 9/11. Instead of prosecuting Shelby, the Justice Department referred his case to the Senate Ethics Committee, and the senator is still at large.

After arresting Shelby, the leak-busters could extend their nonpartisan streak by calling on Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., and requesting his assistance. In 2004, Rockefeller accused the Bush administration of leaking classified information “for partisan purposes” to Bob Woodward for his book Bush at War and demanded—what else?—an investigation. I’m sure he’s kept his notes in good order should Bill and Denny want to locate administration sources who surrendered classified info to other reporters.

Senate Democrats, who pranked the Republicans earlier this month by convening a surprise closed-door session over the misuse of intelligence, would be only too willing to participate in a broader leak investigation should Frist and Hastert choose to meet with them. And don’t forget the Republicans. A couple of members of the GOP quoted in today’s Poststory about the duo’s proposed leak investigationSen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.—seem interested in turning the proposed investigation into a probe of the prisons themselves.

Exactly how cloak-and-dagger are the secret prisons? Not to take anything away from Priest’s fine scoop, but the day after it appeared, the Financial Times went forward with a part of the story the Post agreed not to publish. The Post had deferred to the request from “senior U.S. officials” not to publish the Eastern European countries’ names because doing so might disturb current counterterrorism efforts and cause terrorists to target those nations. The FT cited evidence from Human Rights Watch, which studied the flight records of CIA jets moving prisoners out of Afghanistan to deduce that Romania and Poland host black sites. (Both countries deny the charge.)

Predictions emanating from my corner can never be taken seriously. After all, I wrote in summer 2003 that the Plame scandal would dribble away and vanish. But if my crystal ball weren’t in hock, I’d predict that Frist and Hastert’s call for a leak query was a one- or two-day media stunt designed to deflect attention from the scope and scale of the administration’s black sites. Now that they’ve made their noise, they won’t bring it up again.

However, I do reserve the right to deny ever having written this column when and if Congress jails Dana Priest on contempt charges for refusing to answer questions about her sources.


Stop me before I predict again, but also e-mail your predictions to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)