On last September 10, the No Such Agency guys taped a cell phone call (or two) that went from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia. When they were translated — on September 12 — they contained, among others, the words, “zero hour is tomorrow,” and “the big match is tomorrow.” Had they been translated the day they were recorded, it is still unlikely that we would have been able to prevent the 9-11 attacks. Standing alone, they don’t mean much. The real importance of these intercepts is not what they contained, but what people have done with them. The fact that the information was passed to the congressional intelligence committees, and then leaked to the media, means that someone should be going to jail for revealing sensitive intelligence information that may have compromised the key assets of our intelligence community.
When the intel guys hear about a leak, there are varying degrees of reaction. If you leak the location of George Tenet’s favorite Chinese restaurant, you can expect a nasty phone call. From a restaurant critic. But if you reveal information that tells the bad guys how we got information, or from whom, you endanger people’s lives, and may give the bad guys the ability to avoid being listened to. In this case, it’s probable that the leak did compromise a source, or a particular method. It’s serious stuff.
You can tell how serious by the reaction. Most of the people in Fort Fumble and the CIA are pretty used to congressional leaks. As one friend told me recently, after taking the fifteen minute ride back to the Pentagon after giving a classified briefing, he often was greeted by a CNN story that spilled all or most of the beans. This time, Vice President Cheney was on the phone to the congressional committees on June 20, the day after the leak, raising holy hell about it. As well he should have.
By the time the leak occurred, the congressional investigations of intelligence agency failures that led to 9-11 were already underway. But when Congress promised to investigate the leaks, it quickly became obvious that it lacked any serious means of investigating itself. So congressional leaders asked the FBI to investigate. At that point we had the Congress investigating the FBI and the CIA and the FBI investigating the Congress. This past week Congress changed its mind because of the Separation of Powers doctrine in the U.S. Constitution, which provides the excuse for senators and congressmen — and their staffs — to dodge what might be found in some inconvenient polygraph tests. At this point Saddam and OBL must be laughing so hard they probably wet their pants more than usual.
There is nothing in the Constitution that prevents one branch of government from investigating another. Congress has oversight duties that lead it to investigate almost everything executive agencies do. If a member of Congress has violated the law by leaking classified information, the FBI has every right to investigate. No, I take that back. It has the duty to do so.
At this point, while the congressbeings may have dodged the polygraph tests for now, the investigation continues. In this week’s “Washington Whispers” pages of U.S. News & World Report, Paul Bedard reports that investigators have focused on three members of Congress, one of whom is Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Shelby is believed to have spoken to a CNN reporter at about the time the leak occurred. According to Bedard’s report, Shelby’s spokesman denied it. It is very possible that the investigators are chasing the wrong guy. When things like this happen, people tend to point investigators at their enemies, and that may be all that is going on with Shelby. But the investigators may also be right on the money with him and the other two whose names have not yet been leaked by the investigators.
Shelby and the others should come forward immediately and volunteer to take an FBI polygraph test to clear their names. Congressional prerogatives may be preserved by submitting voluntarily, and by having the tests made off congressional turf. No invasion of the Capitol is necessary or appropriate. If Shelby isn’t cleared, he should be investigated thoroughly and prosecuted to the full extent of the law if investigators find enough evidence to make a solid case. Other implicated members of Congress and their staffs — also a likely source of leaks — should be invited to take the tests.
If any member of Congress or staffer refuses to take the test — and obviously if they fail it — their security clearance must be canceled immediately. If further investigation shows that it is likely that a criminal act occurred, we have to throw the book at whoever is the likely culprit. If a member of Congress leaked the information, his congressional immunity may bar prosecution for the act. Should the Justice Department determine that the immunity prevents prosecution, Congress should expel the senators or congressmen guilty of the leak. Their names should be made public. Anyone who would release classified information such as this is unfit to be a member of Congress.
While all this is going on, there’s another action item that should be attended to. The No Such Agency guys should talk to the Spec Ops crowd about who was on the Saudi end of those phone calls. A couple of Delta guys ought to pay them an unannounced visit some night very soon.