Critics See White House Double Standard on Leaks

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration, which has responded swiftly and angrily to suspected leaks of classified information by officials in other branches of government, is under fire for being slow to react to an apparent breach by one of its own.

In numerous instances since Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush White House has been quick to condemn others for failing to safeguard national secrets. Officials have scolded lawmakers for their allegedly loose tongues, fired off memos to military commanders seen as too cozy with the media, and backed up those admonitions with calls for investigations or threats to curtail access to classified data.

Even as the FBI opened an investigation of the administration last week, lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill were entering their second year in the crosshairs of a separate FBI investigation launched after the White House complained that congressional sources were to blame for classified Al Qaeda communications finding their way into the media.

Given that track record, many in Washington have been mystified that the White House didn’t respond publicly until last week to a leak dating to mid-July, when a syndicated columnist “outed” a clandestine CIA operative and attributed the information to “senior administration officials.” It only reacted after news reports that the CIA had formally requested a criminal investigation.

President Bush last week condemned all leaks of classified information and ordered his staff to cooperate with the FBI inquiry, but by then the gesture was seen by critics as a belated attempt to contain the political fallout from a leak more than two months old.


The perceived disparity in the White House reactions has stoked criticism of the administration among members of Congress as well as current and former intelligence officials, who accuse the White House of applying a double standard when it comes to policing leaks to the media.

Many Democrats on Capitol Hill say that the White House has itself used selective leaks -- and selective outrage at the alleged leaks of others -- to advance its policies, particularly relating to the war in Iraq.

Some senior Democrats complain that they have been forced repeatedly to defend their stewardship of secret information and to fight to maintain access to it, even as the White House ignored an apparent violation by administration insiders.

“People are very upset about it up here,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“The contrast between their rhetoric and the casual way in which the president first treated this [disclosure of the CIA operative’s name] is incredible,” Levin said. “Here’s a leak that is not only a felony but directly can jeopardize lives.”

Even some Republicans say they have found the White House response to the matter lacking. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the administration should have been faster to take the offensive.

“You want to expedite this and get to the bottom of it and get it out of the way,” Roberts said in a telephone interview Friday. “I think it took them a little long.”

The White House defends its handling of the matter. Spokesman Scott McClellan said the administration can’t be expected to react to leaks attributed to anonymous sources that show up “every day in the news.”

“Going back to July there was absolutely no information that had been brought to our attention beyond anonymous sources in media reports to suggest any White House involvement,” McClellan said. “The president has directed the staff to cooperate fully because no one wants to get to the bottom of this sooner than he does.”

The controversy centers on allegations that the administration leaked the classified information to punish a critic, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who in a July 6 New York Times opinion article called into question Bush’s claim that Iraq had sought to acquire uranium from Africa.

A year before Bush made that claim in his State of the Union address in January, Wilson had traveled to Africa on assignment for the CIA to investigate the allegation, concluded it was baseless, and reported his findings to the agency. He also said he believed his findings had been reported up the chain of command to the White House.

Columnist Robert Novak defended Bush on July 14, writing that the White House didn’t know of Wilson’s trip, and asserting that Wilson likely got the assignment because his wife was an “operative” at the CIA. Novak identified her as Valerie Plame, attributing the information to two “senior administration officials.”

If Novak’s account is true, those officials may have committed a felony by exposing a clandestine operative’s identity, ending her ability to work under cover and perhaps endangering people she had worked with overseas.

Wilson has said he believes the disclosure was designed to punish him and discourage other critics of the administration from coming forward. On Sunday, he said that the leak may have endangered his wife’s life.

“There have been a number of other people who have come out and suggested that this does make her a target,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We ... have begun to rethink our own security posture” as a result of those suggestions, he said. He did not elaborate other than to say that “nobody has offered security from the government.”

On the same program, Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said that if there is “the most remote possibility of her life being in danger, then the government owes that person protection and security.”

Administration supporters, including Roberts, say they believe the disclosure was likely inadvertent, perhaps a slip by administration officials who were unaware the officer was undercover and only mentioned her name to bolster their case that the White House had nothing to do with Wilson’s trip.

Either way, the disclosure has outraged many in the close-knit intelligence community, particularly veterans of the CIA’s clandestine service.

“The whole thing is just so distressing,” said a retired CIA case officer who spent his career working under cover overseas and asked to remain anonymous. “If some idiot in the White House set out to do this malevolently, he ought to have his tongue cut off.”

Bush said Tuesday that if the leak came from someone within his administration, “the person will be taken care of.” But the White House also spent much of last week deflecting calls for a special counsel and declining to press officials inside the administration for answers.

When leaks have appeared to come from other corners of government, the White House has often responded immediately and aggressively.

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, the White House briefly cut off classified briefings to all but a few members of Congress after complaining that too many secrets were showing up in the media. The policy was quickly rescinded after protests from lawmakers.

Last year, amid news reports claiming to present details from the Iraq war plan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld frequently excoriated the anonymous sources cited in such stories and issued a memo to senior military staff telling them leaked information is “damaging our country’s ability to stop terrorist acts and is putting American lives at risk.”

Perhaps the most striking example came last year when CNN, citing congressional sources, reported that one day before the Sept. 11 attacks, the National Security Agency had intercepted Al Qaeda communications warning that “The match is about to begin” and “Tomorrow is zero hour.”

The CNN report came one day after the head of the agency, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, discussed the intercepts in closed-door testimony on Capitol Hill.

An outraged Vice President Dick Cheney promptly called the then-chairmen of the intelligence committees, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chastised them for lax security and again threatened to cut off congressional access, according to aides familiar with the conversations.

Stung by the criticism in the midst of their inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks, the lawmakers invited the Justice Department to open an investigation.

The FBI investigation of the congressional panels, which appeared to have been dormant for much of the last year, has recently been revived.

Congressional sources said the FBI has conducted new interviews in recent weeks with some staffers. And several aides said they have been told that a grand jury has been convened in the case.

The Justice Department and the FBI declined to comment on the matter, citing the confidentiality of investigations. Roberts, Goss and other lawmakers said they were unaware of the status of the inquiry.

Many Democrats in Congress say the White House used selective leaks or declassification of intelligence to bolster its case for going to war with Iraq. They cite reports of alleged Iraq weapons procurement efforts that showed up in the media at key junctures in the debate.

They are particularly suspicious about the timing of a Sept. 8, 2002, story reporting that fresh intelligence showed that Iraq had sought to purchase large quantities of aluminum tubes, allegedly for use in reviving its nuclear weapons program.

That same day, Cheney cited the report in his appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” as evidence that Iraq was jump-starting its nuclear program. The aluminum tubes claim has since been widely discredited.

“That was such a source of frustration to me, the selective leaking,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the intelligence committee, who voted against the war resolution. “It angered me to watch as people within the administration leaked selective information about the threat in Iraq, leaving out many other important details.”

The lawmakers also complain that intelligence that undercut the administration’s claims was kept classified, while information that supported the contention that Iraq posed a threat was cleared for release.

Some of those details -- including disagreements within the intelligence community over conclusions about Iraq’s nuclear ambitions and alleged efforts to develop a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles -- have since come to light and are fueling a debate about the justification for going to war with Iraq.