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Administration focused on plugging leaks to media

From the Summer 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 6.

From the Summer 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 6.

By Wendy Tannenbaum

Whistleblowers help reveal government corruption and error to their superiors and to the news media. But those insiders who leak other important information to the news media that deserves to be public do not get the level of protection of that afforded to whistleblowers. In fact, leaks often lead to investigations that can interfere with a journalist’s newsgathering efforts.

Leaks from insiders are a key source of information for those who report on the federal government. Despite government efforts to plug leaks coming from Congress, Washington journalists report a relatively steady stream of information from unauthorized sources on Capitol Hill. White House sources, on the other hand, tend to be tight-lipped.

“Leaking has been such a routine way of doing business in Washington for so many years that even some government officials say the government would have trouble functioning without some classified information being disclosed to the press,” wrote former Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Jack Nelson in a working paper for the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

“This administration is sealed up pretty tight (unlike the Clinton Administration),” said Jerry Zremski, a Washington, D.C., reporter for the Buffalo News. “There are a few real leaks. It seems to me that the ones you see appear strategically planned.”

“There was a huge crackdown in leaks after Bush took office,” agreed Jodi Enda, who covered the White House and Congress for Knight-Ridder newspapers. “After 9-11, the White House used national security as an excuse. But the no-leaks policy predated that day.”

That said, stories that rely on confidential sources emerge regularly from the White House.

Enda pointed to recent reports relating to intelligence for President Bush’s war with Iraq as an example.

“Very little of the information [in those stories] is sourced,” she said.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has called for an investigation into one such leak. On July 24, he sent a letter urging FBI Director Robert Mueller to find out who revealed to journalist Robert Novak the identity of an undercover CIA agent. The agent was identified to establish links between the CIA and former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was selected for a trip to Niger to investigate the claims of attempted Iraqi purchases of uranium and who later publicly questioned the president’s evidence for the Iraq war. A July 14 article by the Washington columnist credited “senior public officials” with naming Wilson’s wife as an operative specializing in weapons of mass destruction.

“The FBI needs to find out who made the name of this agent public and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. There can be zero tolerance for this kind of action,” Schumer said in a statement. He said the leak compromised the safety of the operative and her acquaintances and threatened national security.

Schumer’s statement referenced a previous leaks inquiry conducted by the FBI last summer, saying the “current scandal is just as serious.”

In June 2002, the FBI opened an investigation into a leak to CNN of classified information about the September 11 attacks.

The leak involved information from conversations intercepted by the National Security Agency the day before the attacks. The contents of the conversations were discussed on June 18, 2002, in a closed meeting of members of the House and Senate. CNN broadcast details of the intercepts the following day.

According to reports, the White House was furious over the leak.

In July 2002, the FBI asked 17 senators to turn over their schedules, phone records, visitor sign-in sheets, and e-mail from June 18 and 19. The FBI also interviewed staff members and asked the senators whether they would be willing to take lie detector tests.

No developments in that investigation have been reported since the FBI’s initial inquiries.

Capitol Hill reporters say the amount of information coming from Congress has not slowed, and leaks continue to provide them with stories. They are not aware of any new internal leaks investigations opening on the Hill since last summer.