The Dangerous Business of Leaking Secrets

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, October 22, 2005

Some folks are really touchy these days. Take, for instance, these four readers: D.G., J., W.T. and D.L. They didn't care for my column on Harriet Miers ["The Right, on Fire Over Miers," Oct. 8] and thus availed themselves of the opportunity to tell me so by e-mail.

Wrote D.G.: "Some portly Episcopalian [an indelicate reference to moi ] who condones the systemic elimination of the helpless Unborn styles himself a good heart because he happens to be black and benefiting from the Graham family's quota mania. What a joke!!!"

From J.: "If you weren't Black, you wouldn't get a job in journalism. You are in due to a tacit quota system."

And W.T.: "Reading your article is like watching a black minstrel doing his song and dance with words. Pure buffoonery! Affirmative action writer in action."

Finally, D.L.: "king...your article was biased and fulla[expletive] . . . so pack it up your liberal [expletive] sideways."

Where's the love?

All because I said Harriet Miers is causing President Bush's conservative base to weep, wail and gnash their teeth, which, in my book, means she can't be all bad. After looking at the unbelievably sloppy job she did on the Senate Judiciary Committee's questionnaire, I'm not sure anymore.

Well, I'll give Miers a rest this week. But this is no time to give a break to my quartet of conservative detractors and their ilk.

Today's musings have to do with the Bush administration's link to the CIA leak investigation.

First, however, a stipulation. I have worked both sides of the issue of government leaks.

Back in the late 1960s, it was my job as a special agent in the State Department and as a security official overseas to help ensure that classified material -- that is, sensitive information ranging from confidential to top-secret, as well as restricted data related to nuclear weapons and materials -- was properly protected and accessed only by those with formal security clearances, and then on a "need to know" basis. It was a full-time worry.

From time to time, classified information ended up in newspapers, leading to orders from higher-ups to investigate the leak. I participated in a couple of "leak of information" cases. The leakers were never found (though we had our suspects). The reason? Leakers -- and most assuredly high-ranking and high-profile officials -- lie like crazy.

Without prosecutorial powers, subpoenas and the assistance of a grand jury, which can compel testimony, ferreting out the truth in a government leak case is about as likely as Paris Hilton entering a convent.

Now to my journalistic hat, which I have joyfully worn for 15 years. Along with my newsroom colleagues, I believe we should obtain and publish any and all credible information that is newsworthy, serves the public interest, and that, based on the newspaper's own sober assessment, does not endanger national security or human life. Sometimes the pursuit of those goals entails going with stories based on classified information that comes from sources -- whistle-blowers or leakers -- who could be fired if caught.

End of stipulation. That said, the CIA leak case belongs in a class of its own. The Bush administration, having denied any knowledge or involvement in the disclosure of Valerie Plame's CIA affiliation, appears to be up to its eyeballs in the whole affair. But security transgressions, if that's what they are, appear to extend beyond blowing an agent's cover.

Last Sunday, the New York Times published reporter Judith Miller's firsthand account of her grand jury appearance in connection with the leak case. According to Miller, the inquiry that special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald conducted before the grand jury roamed beyond the disclosure of Valerie Plame's name. Miller wrote that Fitzgerald, referring to Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, asked "if I had discussed classified information with Mr. Libby, and I said I believed so, but could not be sure." Miller said she told Fitzgerald and the grand jury that I. Lewis Libby treated classified material very carefully and that while he had not shown her any documents, "I thought I remembered him at one point reading from a piece of paper he pulled from his pocket."

Miller does not have a security clearance, though she claimed she had one when she was embedded with a special military unit in Iraq two years ago. She later modified that statement to say she had signed a nondisclosure form with the military giving her temporary access to classified information under rules set by her military hosts, according to Thursday's Times. At any rate, she no longer had authorized access to classified information after the Iraq assignment.

If Miller's grand jury account about discussing classified material with Libby is true, Cheney's chief of staff may have run afoul of regulations and the law. Miller certainly was not authorized to receive sensitive government information.

To say it happens all the time in Washington is not to say that it's all right or that prosecutors should look the other way when they learn that an unauthorized disclosure of classified material has occurred. Security classifications exist for good reasons. That information on occasion is classified to hide embarrassing incidents rather than to protect national security is not an excuse to ignore confidential, secret or top-secret labels. Deliberate misclassification is wrong, too, and warrants sanctions if detected.

But sharing state secrets with unauthorized sources is risky and dangerous business. That fact, perhaps, is not lost on the Bush White House. But as with so much in the life of this administration, it may be knowledge gained the hard way.

(I can hear D.G., J., W.T. and D.L. now: "There goes King, messing around in white folks' business.")

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