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White House Moves to Tighten Loose Lips, Stop Leaks to Media

July 21, 2002|PAUL RICHTER and GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration, until now considered one of the most effective ever at controlling information, is suddenly struggling to plug leaks that threaten political embarrassment and, officials say, harm to national security.

FBI investigators recently were interrogating the staff of a congressional panel probing intelligence failures of Sept. 11, and they may take the unprecedented step of using polygraph exams.

After a public display of anger by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Pentagon officials have begun an inquiry into who gave newspapers draft war plans for a possible attack on Iraq.

And the State Department took the highly unusual step recently of detaining a reporter at its Foggy Bottom headquarters in an effort to find out who leaked a classified diplomatic cable that contained embarrassing information about the department's visa program.

Top administration officials have said from the beginning of President Bush's term that they are serious about enforcing the laws that make it a crime to leak classified documents. But not until now has it become fully apparent how vigorous they are willing to be.

The cases also demonstrate the limits on how tightly any administration can control information. Though Bush's team is known for keeping the lid on--even Cabinet members were unaware of Bush's plan to create a Department of Homeland Security--the president's team has not been able to control everyone in the executive branch or in Congress.

And questions are beginning to arise about the wisdom of even trying to root out the sources of leaks.

William Kristol, who was chief of staff to former Vice President Dan Quayle, said the government should only mobilize against leaks that genuinely threaten lives and national security.

"There's not much evidence that any of the leaks here are of that character," said Kristol, now editor of the Weekly Standard magazine.

The Capitol Hill investigation was launched last month after news organizations, citing congressional sources, disclosed contents of a classified briefing by the ultra-secret National Security Agency.

In closed-door testimony, NSA officials reportedly acknowledged that the agency had intercepted Al Qaeda messages Sept. 10 saying "tomorrow is zero day" and "the match begins tomorrow," but had not translated the messages from Arabic until Sept. 12. Within hours of the officials' testimony, those messages were being reported on television and on the Internet.

Angered by the disclosure, Vice President Dick Cheney called the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees, demanding a crackdown. The lawmakers, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), responded by sending a letter to Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft inviting an inquiry.

Among the questions staff members faced was whether they would be willing to submit to polygraph tests, according to one aide.

The Pentagon inquiry began after The Times and, later, the New York Times, published the broad outlines of a proposal for attacking Iraq. The plan called for using land-, air- and sea-based forces to hit Iraq from three directions.

Rumsfeld said in a TV interview last week that the document appeared to be from a lower-level planner. A defense official told Associated Press on Friday that investigators were having difficulty figuring out which document the reports were based on.

State Department security officials detained reporter Joel Mowbray of the National Review magazine July 12 after Mowbray said during a daily briefing at the department's headquarters that he had a classified cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, about embarrassing problems with the granting of visas there.

Some critics, including some conservative members of Congress, have complained that an accelerated visa program has opened U.S. borders to Saudis who may pose security threats.

Mowbray was detained for about 15 minutes, he said in an interview, while Diplomatic Security Service officials sought to find out whether he had the cable with him. State Department officials said he was stopped because his comments to chief spokesman Richard Boucher indicated he had a copy with him. In those circumstances, they said, security officials could not simply allow him to leave the building without trying to recover it.

As congressional critics have argued, the administration sometimes has used classified information to make its case in public.

In May, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, during a news briefing, outlined a covert CIA plan the administration was close to approving in the summer of 2001 that was designed to help guerrilla fighters oust Afghanistan's ruling Taliban.

The disclosure was widely seen as an effort by the White House to deflect criticism that it was not pursuing Al Qaeda aggressively enough, even though Bush was warned during a CIA briefing that the terrorist organization might seek to hijack commercial aircraft.

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