IF CIA OFFICIALS leaked information about the agency's secret prisons to The Post's Dana Priest, then the American public owes them a debt of gratitude. We don't know who the sources were for Ms. Priest's Pulitzer Prize-winning work, though we assume there were many. (The news and editorial departments here operate separately, and they don't share such information.) Last week a CIA officer on the verge of retirement, Mary O. McCarthy, was fired for speaking to Ms. Priest and other journalists, though she says she did not provide classified information about the secret prisons. Anyone who talked from inside the CIA violated the agency's rules, if not the law. But they also upheld the public interest.
The Bush administration is holding a number of terrorism suspects incommunicado in secret prisons abroad without due process or even notification of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and some detainees have been subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. This is a gross violation of international law and American values, and it's essential to our democracy that such an exceptional policy be subject to public debate. Maybe disclosure of the prisons damaged national security -- the CIA has offered no evidence of that -- but it's hard to imagine what could be more damaging than the existence of the system itself. CIA Director Porter J. Goss appears to have dismissed Ms. McCarthy to send a message to others who leaked to the press. That's a questionable use of his authority.
We don't question the need for intelligence agencies to gather or keep secrets, or to penalize employees who fail to do so. Leaks that compromise national security, such as the deliberate delivery of information to foreign governments, must be aggressively prosecuted. But the history of the past several decades shows that leaks of classified information to the U.S. media have generally benefited the country -- whether it was the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam era or the more recent revelations of secret prisons and domestic spying during the war on terrorism. Those who leak to the press often do so for patriotic reasons, not because they wish to damage national security. The press itself has a record of protecting information that would endanger lives or ongoing operations; The Post, for example, withheld the locations of the CIA prisons from Ms. Priest's story. Previous CIA directors refrained from hunting down leakers for the simple reason that they had more urgent priorities.
Which bring us to Mr. Goss. He has taken no disciplinary action against CIA personnel identified by his inspector general as having played a part in the failure to prevent the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He has taken no action against CIA interrogators known to have participated in the torture and killing of foreign detainees, or against those who knowingly violated the Geneva Conventions in Iraq. He has driven a host of senior managers from the agency. Now he would have the country believe that one of the CIA's biggest problems -- worthy of an unprecedented internal investigation he personally oversaw -- is unauthorized leaks to the press. His setting of priorities seems unlikely to improve the CIA's success rate in judging foreign programs of weapons of mass destruction or preventing the next terrorist attack.