Crackdown on Leaks Can Lead to Trouble

050106 article conason Crackdown on Leaks  Can Lead to TroubleThe etiquette and morality of leaking is not always easy to understand, especially for citizens outside Washington. From the journalistic perspective, almost all leaks are inherently good. From the politician’s point of view—as the White House is now demonstrating—many leaks are excellent while others are very bad, and the crucial question is whether the revealed facts are flattering or embarrassing.

Distinguishing good leaks from bad is especially relevant today, when officials who disclose the wrong information to the wrong people at the wrong time risk federal prosecution.

The C.I.A. is zealously pursuing staffers who may have disclosed nasty secrets to the press about the secret prisons it has been operating abroad. Last week, the agency dismissed a longtime employee named Mary McCarthy because of her unauthorized discussions with Washington reporters, including Dana Priest, the Washington Post intelligence specialist. Whether the government will prosecute Ms. McCarthy is yet to be determined, although she denies disclosing the secret-prison story to Ms. Priest.

The Justice Department has warned that its leak investigations may result in subpoenas to reporters, seeking to force them to expose their sources. Leading Republicans on Capitol Hill have urged that anyone who discloses or publishes classified information should be hauled before a grand jury.

And certain figures in the media have amplified those threats, notably including the virtue guru, superpatriot and degenerate gambler William Bennett. He thinks Ms. Priest and James Risen, the New York Times correspondent who broke the story of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency, should be given prison sentences, not prizes.

Despite such confident denunciations from the right, however, determining which leaks are bad and which are good can be a murky process.

Is it always bad to leak sensitive classified information to a reporter for The Washington Post? Not if the reporter’s name is Bob Woodward and he is writing a laudatory book with a thrilling title like Bush at War. In researching that 2002 best-seller, Mr. Woodward was told about covert operations, secret sources and methods, and relationships with foreign intelligence services, with the blessing of President Bush. After the publication of Bush at War, the President instructed top government officials to continue cooperating with Mr. Woodward in the reporting of his next epic.

Is it always bad to leak sensitive information to a reporter for The New York Times? Not if the reporter’s name is Judith Miller and she is writing scary stories about Iraq’s alleged arsenal of forbidden weapons. Ms. Miller received many classified leaks long before Lewis (Scooter) Libby whispered Valerie Plame’s name to her in June 2003. She may even have been awarded a special “clearance” while covering the fruitless search for Saddam’s fearsome arsenal in Iraq, courtesy of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

In fact, selective leaks that advance the objectives of the White House and the Pentagon—by misinforming the public—are not really leaks at all.

Does anyone who leaks about N.S.A. eavesdropping belong in prison? Not if that person happens to be a Republican Senator. At least twice in recent years, ranking members of that exclusive club have revealed potentially damaging secrets, which were then broadcasted and published.

On Sept. 11, 2001, only hours after Al Qaeda’s hijackers struck, Senator Orrin Hatch told the Associated Press about a briefing he had just received from intelligence officials. An Al Qaeda operative had been overheard talking with his handler, according to Senator Hatch, who also blabbed to ABC News.

“They have an intercept of some information that includes people associated with [Osama] bin Laden who acknowledged a couple of targets were hit,” said the voluble Utah Republican, who mentioned that he had heard about the phone intercept from the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. Administration officials were displeased by the Senator’s outburst, but nobody tried to prosecute him or lift his security clearances.

The following year, Senator Richard Shelby evidently told reporters for CNN and Fox News Channel about two messages in Arabic that had been intercepted by the N.S.A. on Sept. 10, 2001. (“The match is about to begin,” said one; “Tomorrow is zero hour,” said the other; but neither was translated until Sept. 12.) A desultory investigation by the F.B.I. ended without the issuance of any subpoenas, and the bureau referred its findings to the Senate Ethics Committee, which dropped the matter without taking any action against the Alabama Republican.

While both Senators denied revealing any classified information, each of them evidently did so. If Al Qaeda’s leaders realized that the N.S.A. was monitoring their communications, the damage was likely done years ago by those Senatorial disclosures—and not by last December’s newspaper reports.

But protecting national security isn’t the purpose of investigating leakers who have exposed the scandalous underside of the Bush administration. Those investigations are meant to intimidate whistleblowers, dissidents and skeptical reporters—and to make sure we don’t know anything the White House doesn’t want us to know.