Spy Another Day

Are spooks getting purged for others' leaks? Inside the White House war on information

The shakeup at the CIA is being painted as a crusade against agency employees who leaked secret information to the media. If so, it's another front in the wider Bush administration campaign against unauthorized disclosures of inconvenient facts.

Four CIA officials have departed since the election and others may follow. New York Times columnist William Safire last week called them "pouting spooks at Langley who bet on a Kerry victory." A memo to agency employees from new spy director Porter Goss calls on them to "scrupulously honor our secrecy oath." Newsday reports that the lancing of leakers came at White House request.

With the Bush administration tightly controlling its public message, leaks have made for juicy reading recently—and have been essential to the debate over war and peace. Last month, Knight Ridder reported on a CIA study that cast doubt on links between Saddam Hussein and terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. A month earlier, the Times described a secret assessment that saw a risk of Iraq sliding into civil war.

The steady drip-drip-drip of information means Goss is "entitled—and should, in my opinion—to track down who leaked those things," former CIA boss Stansfield Turner tells the Voice, saying he thought the leaks were intended to "influence the domestic political scene."

Leaks certainly can devastate: The 9/11 Commission Report blames a leak to The Washington Times in 1998 for ending a U.S. intelligence tap on a key communication line of Osama bin Laden. But the thing about leaks, according to former CIA officer Richard Beske, is that "everybody does it."

"The White House is as guilty as every organization," he says.

Not everyone buys the theory that the CIA purge is a hunt for leakers. "My own impression is that most leaks don't come out of the CIA," says Michael Scheuer, the veteran agent who anonymously penned Imperial Hubris, a book critical of the conduct of the war on terrorism since the mid 1990s. Scheuer, who retired on November 12, believes most leaks spring from the Defense Department or the White House. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the Senate ethics committee is probing Alabama Republican Richard Shelby for allegedly leaking details of suspicious phone calls the National Security Agency intercepted on September 10, 2001.

But Arizona Republican senator John McCain does blame the CIA, saying recently that, "with CIA leaks intended to harm the re-election campaign of the president of the United States, [the CIA] is not only dysfunctional but a rogue organization."

The administration's crackdown on leaks began last year, when a July 2003 syndicated Robert Novak column reported that the wife of WMD whistleblower Joseph Wilson, Valerie Plame, was a CIA officer. The release of her identity might have violated federal law, and the Justice Department launched a probe.

But the investigation has raised eyebrows for its broad attack on the use of confidential sourcing. Some White House employees, at Democratic senator Chuck Schumer's suggestion, have been asked to waive any confidentiality agreements with reporters. Investigators have sought records of phone calls to a long list of journalists. And several reporters—including at least one who never wrote about Wilson's wife—have been threatened with jail time for not discussing their sources.

President Bush may have set the tone for this crusade when he said last year, "There are too many leaks of classified information in Washington. There's leaks at the executive branch; there's leaks in the legislative branch. There's just too many leaks."

The CIA leak case is not the only one where reporters' use of confidential sources is under fire by courts or federal agencies. A judge hearing the suit against the FBI by scientist Stephen Hatfill, named as a "person of interest" in the anthrax-letters probe, has asked Justice Department employees to sign confidentiality waivers. A Rhode Island reporter was found in contempt last week for refusing to say who gave him a videotape used in an FBI probe of corruption.

All this takes place in an atmosphere of increased secrecy in the Bush administration. The number of documents marked "classified" increased 8 percent last year, with NASA and Health and Human Services leading the way. New employees of the Department of Homeland Security are being asked to sign an agreement not to disclose even unclassified sensitive material, although a spokeswoman says the new form just makes explicit an obligation that the department's 180,000 employees already faced.

In an ironic twist, it was to Novak—who first printed the Plame leak—that McCain complained about leaks at the CIA. In another irony, Goss was asked last year, as head of the House intelligence panel, to investigate the Plame leak. His reply: "Somebody sends me a blue dress and some DNA, I'll have an investigation."

The invisible hand

It's been a tough couple weeks at Newsday: Editors got shuffled, 100 employees were asked to take voluntary buyouts, the final report on the circulation scandal showed the figures for daily and Sunday distribution were off by 97,000 papers, and word emerged that the Tribune Company plans to consolidate the Washington, D.C., bureaus of its papers, which include Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune.

As reporters grimaced, Wall Street yawned: Tribune's stock price has barely budged since the moves were announced.

Vote springs eternal

If you think the media are ignoring stories about flaws in the presidential election, you are not alone. Letters to the Voice charge that the media (including this newspaper) have prematurely dismissed reports of polling problems. Electronic-voting critic Bev Harris claims there's a "lockdown" on reporting the story.

At the heart of the matter in Ohio, two reporters at the Cleveland Plain Dealer say there is a little newsroom griping over whether the paper has been doing enough. The Dealer has run pieces on discrepancies in vote reports and long waits at the local polls.

Other election stories lurk. Outside Ohio, a few outlets are paying attention to a statistical study from the University of California at Berkeley that finds an odd relationship between electronic voting and votes for Bush in Florida: The presence of touch-screen voting correlated with an increase in the Bush total from 2000 to 2004. And inside Ohio, third-party candidates say they'll pay for a recount once the official tally is done around December 1. The vote is still out on whether the rest of the media will notice.

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