WASHINGTON – The Bush administration, seeking to limit leaks of classified information, has launched initiatives targeting journalists and their possible government sources. The efforts include several FBI probes, a polygraph investigation inside the CIA and a Justice Department warning that reporters could be prosecuted under espionage laws.
In recent weeks, dozens of employees at the CIA, the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies have been interviewed by agents from the FBI’s Washington field office, who are investigating possible leaks that led to reports about secret CIA prisons and the NSA’s warrantless domestic surveillance program, according to law enforcement and intelligence officials familiar with the cases.
Numerous employees at the CIA, FBI, Justice Department and other agencies also have received letters from Justice prohibiting them from discussing even unclassified issues related to the NSA program, according to sources familiar with the notices. Some GOP lawmakers are also considering whether to approve tougher penalties for leaking.
In a little-noticed case in California, FBI agents from Los Angeles have contacted reporters at the Sacramento Bee about stories published in July based on sealed court documents related to a terrorism case in Lodi, according to the newspaper.
Some media watchers, lawyers and editors say that, taken together, the incidents represent the most extensive and overt campaign against leaks in a generation, and that they have worsened the already-tense relationship between mainstream news organizations and the White House.
“There’s a tone of gleeful relish in the way they talk about dragging reporters before grand juries, their appetite for withholding information, and the hints that reporters who look too hard into the public’s business risk being branded traitors,” said New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller. “I don’t know how far action will follow rhetoric, but some days it sounds like the administration is declaring war at home on the values it professes to be promoting abroad.”
President Bush has called the NSA leak “a shameful act” that was “helping the enemy,” and said in December that he was hopeful the Justice Department would conduct a full investigation into the disclosure.
“We need to protect the right to free speech and the First Amendment, and the president is doing that,” said White House spokesman Trent Duffy. “But at the same time we do need to protect classified information, which helps fight … terror.”
Disclosing classified information without authorization has long been against the law, yet such leaks are one of the realities of life in Washington – accounting for much of the back-channel conversation that goes on daily among journalists, policy intellectuals, and current and former government officials.
Presidents have also long complained about leaks: Richard Nixon’s infamous “plumbers” were originally set up to plug them, and he tried, but failed, to prevent publication of a classified history of the Vietnam War called the Pentagon Papers. Ronald Reagan exclaimed at one point that he was “up to my keister” in leaks.
Bush administration officials, who complain that reports about detainee abuse, clandestine surveillance and other topics have endangered the nation during a time of war, have arguably taken a more aggressive approach than other recent administrations, including a clear willingness to take on journalists more directly.
“Almost every administration has kind of come in saying they want an open administration, and then getting bad press and fuming about leaks,” said David Greenberg, a Rutgers University journalism professor and author of “Nixon’s Shadow.” “But it’s a pretty fair statement to say you haven’t seen this kind of crackdown on leaks since the Nixon administration.”
But David B. Rivkin Jr., a partner at Baker & Hostetler in Washington and a senior lawyer in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, said the leaking is “out of control,” especially given the unique threat posed by terrorist groups.
“We’re at the end of this paradigm where we had this sort of gentlemen’s agreement where you had leaks and journalists were allowed to protect the leakers,” Rivkin said. “Everyone is playing Russian roulette now.”
The New York Times, which disclosed the NSA program in December, and the Washington Post, which reported on secret CIA prisons in November, said investigators have not contacted reporters or editors.
Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Post, said there has long been a “natural and healthy tension between government and the media” on national security issues, but he is “concerned” about comments by CIA Director Porter Goss and others that appear to reflect a more aggressive stance.
In Sacramento, the Bee reported last month that FBI agents had contacted two of its reporters and, along with a federal prosecutor, had “questioned” a third reporter about articles last July detailing the contents of sealed court documents about five terrorism suspects. A Bee article did not address whether the reporters supplied the agents with any information or whether they were subject to subpoenas.
Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez said this week he could not comment based on the advice of newspaper attorneys. Representatives of the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, which is conducting the inquiry, also declined to comment.
CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise declined to discuss details of the leak investigations there but said they were being conducted independently of the White House and were not aimed at pressuring journalists.