Federal investigators concluded that Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) divulged classified intercepted messages to the media when he was on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, according to sources familiar with the probe.
Specifically, Fox News chief political correspondent Carl Cameron confirmed to FBI investigators that Shelby verbally divulged the information to him during a June 19, 2002, interview, minutes after Shelby's committee had been given the information in a classified briefing, according to the sources, who declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the case.
Cameron did not air the material. Moments after Shelby spoke with Cameron, he met with CNN reporter Dana Bash, and about half an hour after that, CNN broadcast the material, the sources said. CNN cited "two congressional sources" in its report.
The FBI and the U.S. attorney's office pursued the case, and a grand jury was empaneled, but nobody has been charged with any crime. Last month it was revealed that the Justice Department had decided to forgo a criminal prosecution, at least for now, and turned the matter over to the Senate Ethics Committee.
The Justice Department declined to comment on why it was no longer pursuing the matter criminally. The Senate ethics panel also declined to comment on its investigation.
Yesterday, Shelby's press secretary, Virginia Davis, issued this statement: "Senator Shelby served as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee for eight years and as Chairman for five and a half years. He has a full understanding of the importance of protecting our nation's secrets, and he has never knowingly compromised classified information. He is unaware of any evidence to the contrary.
"This matter has been under investigation for two years. The Justice Department has not taken any action other than, only recently, to refer the matter to the Senate Ethics Committee. Other than the letter from the Ethics Committee describing the subject of the reference in general terms, Senator Shelby has not been informed of any specific allegations. He looks forward to the opportunity to respond to the Committee's concerns at the appropriate time."
The disclosure involved two messages that were intercepted by the National Security Agency on the eve of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but were not translated until Sept. 12. The Arabic-language messages said "The match is about to begin" and "Tomorrow is zero hour." The Washington Post, citing senior U.S. intelligence officials, reported the same messages in its June 20, 2002, editions.
National security officials were outraged by the leak, and moments after the CNN broadcast a CIA official chastised committee members who had by then reconvened to continue the closed-door hearing.
Intelligence officials, who consider intercepted communications among the most closely guarded secrets, said the breach proved that Congress could not be trusted with classified information. But experts in electronic surveillance said the information about the NSA's intercepts contained nothing harmful because it did not reveal the source of the information or the methods used to gather it.
Vice President Cheney upbraided the Senate and House committee chairmen in separate phone calls the next day, and White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said President Bush had deep concerns about "anything that could harm our ability to maintain sources and methods, and anything that could interfere with America's ability to fight the war on terrorism."
The panels' chairmen, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), responded immediately by requesting a Justice Department investigation into the disclosure, an unusual move that brought criticism from other members of Congress.
The FBI asked 17 senators to turn over phone records, appointment calendars and schedules. The FBI probe included an interview with a staff member on the intelligence committee who said that Shelby was trying to leak the information to show the shortcomings of the intelligence community, the sources said. Shelby had called repeatedly for the resignation of then-CIA Director George J. Tenet, whom he said was not up to the job.
Cameron confirmed this week that FBI agents interviewed him on several occasions and asked whether Shelby leaked the information to him. He said they also asked if he saw the senator walk off with CNN's Bash after talking to him.
"Yes, the FBI and the Justice Department came to me to ask me all that information," he said. "I will confirm to you that I was asked all those questions."
But he said he told investigators, "What doesn't go on the air I don't discuss, and we don't disclose our sources."
He said, "When they continued to press me, that's when I got it kicked up to the lawyers."
Cameron, in an interview yesterday, said FBI agents told him they had asked the Justice Department to subpoena him before the grand jury. There was "a lot of talk about getting" a grand jury subpoena, he said, but one was never issued.
Bash, who declined to be interviewed by the FBI, said yesterday: "I cannot comment on it." FBI spokesman Ed Cogswell also declined to comment.
The Shelby probe was one of several ongoing leak investigations, including one trying to determine who leaked the name of an undercover CIA officer, Valerie Plame, to columnist Robert D. Novak.