When the CIA announced on Friday that it had fired an employee who the agency claims "knowingly and willfully shared classified intelligence" with a newspaper reporter, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, immediately praised the agency's action, saying that "unauthorized disclosures of classified information can significantly harm our ability to protect the American people."
On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Sen. Pat Roberts was involved in disclosing sensitive intelligence information that, according to four former senior intelligence officers, impaired efforts to capture Saddam Hussein.
Roberts, one of the staunchest defenders of the Bush administration's effort to stop the flow of sensitive information to the press, said in a statement that "[t]hose who leak classified information not only risk the disclosure of intelligence sources and methods, but also expose the brave men and women of the intelligence community to greater danger. Clearly, those guilty of improperly disclosing classified information should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
But three years ago on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Roberts himself was involved in disclosing sensitive intelligence information that, according to four former senior intelligence officers, impaired efforts to capture Saddam Hussein and potentially threatened the lives of Iraqis who were spying for the United States.
On March 20, 2003, at the onset of military hostilities between U.S. and Iraqi forces, Roberts said in a speech to the National Newspaper Association that he had "been in touch with our intelligence community" and that the CIA had informed President Bush and the National Security Council "of intelligence information from what we call human intelligence that indicated the location of Saddam Hussein and his leadership in a bunker in the suburbs of Baghdad."
The former intelligence officials said in interviews that Roberts was never held accountable for his comments, which bore directly on the issue of intelligence-gathering sources and methods, and revealed that Iraqis close to Hussein were probably talking to the United States. These former officials contrasted the Roberts case with last week's firing of CIA officer Mary O. McCarthy, as examples of how rank and file intelligence professionals now have much to fear from legitimate and even inadvertent contacts with journalists, while senior executive branch officials and members of Congress are almost never held accountable when they seriously breach national security through leaks of information.
"On a scale of one to ten, if Mary McCarthy did what she is accused of doing, it would be at best a six or seven," said one former senior intelligence official, whose position required involvement in numerous leak investigations. "What Pat Roberts did, from a legal and national security point of view, was an eleven."
Ty Cobb, an attorney representing McCarthy, said in an interview that his client "emphatically denies she leaked any classified information and the facts would demonstrate that she would not even have access to any of the information attributed to her leaking to anyone." Cobb declined to comment regarding the CIA's lesser allegations that McCarthy had unauthorized contacts with journalists.
Noting that McCarthy was only ten days short of retirement, Cobb said: "Her hope had been to leave with her dignity and reputation intact, which obviously did not happen."
A former CIA official who worked closely with McCarthy said in an interview that McCarthy was often authorized and directed by higher-ups to talk to the press.
"It is not uncommon for an officer, when they are designated to talk to the press, to let something slip, or not report every contact," the former official said. "Mary might have said something or disclosed something inadvertently, which is exactly Roberts' defense. The only difference between them is that Pat Roberts is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Mary is somebody that they are using to set an example."
Roberts said on Friday that he was "pleased that the Central Intelligence Agency has identified the source of certain unauthorized disclosures, and I hope that the Agency, and the Community as a whole, will continue to vigorously investigate other outstanding leak cases."
CIA Director Porter Goss has expressed even greater displeasure with articles published last year in The New York Times that first disclosed the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance program inside the United States to monitor phone calls and other communications possibly linked to terrorists.
In a response to questions for this article, Times Editor Bill Keller said in an e-mail that he believed the Bush White House is on a campaign to intimidate the press. "I'm not sure journalists fully appreciate the threat confronting us," Keller wrote. "The Times in the eavesdropping case, the Post for its CIA prison stories, and everyone else who has tried to look behind the war on terror."
Keller asserted that "there's sometimes a vindictive tone in the way [administration officials] talk about dragging reporters before grand juries and in the hints that reporters who look too hard into the public's business risk being branded traitors." He warned that journalists possibly are "suffering a bit of subpoena fatigue. Maybe some people are a little intimidated by the way the White House plays the soft-on-terror card. Whatever the reason, I worry that we're not as worried as we should be."
On the issue of leak investigations, one former senior intelligence official said that the Bush administration has targeted "leaks and leakers they don't like, while turning a blind eye to those they do like, or [leaks] they do themselves." Should this continue, the former official said, it would set a "dangerous precedent in that any president will be able to control the flow of information regarding any policy dispute.... When historians examine this, they will see that is how we got into war with Iraq."
President Bush has said that the NSA story and those who leaked to the Times had engaged in a "shameful act" and were "helping the enemy" in a "time of war."
Appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee in February, Goss said regarding the disclosures on the NSA domestic surveillance program that it was his "hope that we will witness a grand jury investigation with reporters present being asked to reveal who is leaking this information."
A senior federal law enforcement official said that by the time the FBI investigation is completed into who provided information to the Times for its articles it may well be the most extensive leak investigation ever undertaken by the bureau -- in terms of agents assigned to the case, resources dedicated to it, and overall expense.
By contrast, the circumstances involving Roberts' statements three years ago to the newspaper group were never subjected to official scrutiny. The senator's comments, while highly significant, received almost no press attention at the time.
After opening his speech with the information about human intelligence and Saddam Hussein's location in a Baghdad bunker, the senator said that President Bush had conferred with his top military advisers and had "authorized a pre-emptive surgical strike with 40 Tomahawk Missiles launched by ship and submarines and so called bunker bombs by F-117 stealth aircraft. I do not have a damage assessment. The Iraqi's report 14 killed and one wounded and are reporting damage in residential areas."
At the time, it was one of the most sensitive secrets in government that the CIA had recruited Iraqi nationals who claimed to have infiltrated Hussein's inner circle to be able to follow his movements at the onset of war. But after the bombs and missiles hit an Iraqi governmental complex known as Dora Park, located on the Tigris River south of Baghdad, Hussein either was not there, or escaped unharmed.
Whether or not Roberts' comments were inadvertent, former intelligence officials said, they almost certainly tipped off the Iraqi dictator that there were spies close to him. "He [Roberts] had given up that we had a penetration of [Saddam's] inner circle," says a former senior intelligence official. "It was the worst thing you could ever do."
What repercussions, if any, occurred in Baghdad as a result of Roberts' comments could not be determined, according to sources. After the missile and bombing attack on his bunker, it is possible that Hussein suspected that he had a spy or spies within his entourage, intelligence officials said. One former official said that the Iraqi dictator "very well may have thought he had been located because of electronic monitoring." Two former intelligence officials said the disclosure by Roberts may have made it more difficult to launch a second missile or bombing attack against Saddam Hussein in the early days of the war.
A spokesperson for Roberts did not respond to numerous phone messages seeking comment for this story, and did not respond to an e-mail inquiry.
A Republican congressional aide who was familiar with the March 20, 2003 speech and who spoke to Roberts about it around the time it occurred, said that Roberts' comments were a "mistake" and a "dumb act," and "not done with bad intent." The aide suggested that Roberts might have been carried away by the moment, or acted out of "self-aggrandizement."
Democrats on Capitol Hill and other administration critics argue that while the Bush administration has been pressing in an unprecedented way to stop leaks of classified information, White House officials have simultaneously engaged in their own leaks that are often worse then the ones they criticize.
The most well-known example is the leak that led to the unmasking of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame by columnist Robert Novak on July 14, 2003. At the time, the White House was attempting to counter allegations by Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, that the Bush administration had misrepresented intelligence information to make the case to go to war.
Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was indicted in October on five felony counts for perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements, in an attempt to conceal his role, and potentially that of other administration officials, in disclosing Plame's name to reporters.
The White House has denied any role in the leaking of Plame's name, and has said that if Libby or anyone leaked her identity, they were acting alone and not on higher authority.
In recent court filings in the Libby case, however, it was disclosed that Libby has told the federal grand jury in the case that he was told by Vice President Cheney that President Bush had authorized him to leak other classified information to the media to defend the administration's use of prewar intelligence. However, Libby has not testified that either Cheney or Bush authorized him to disclose Plame's name or identity as a CIA employee.
The same day that the story broke on Libby's grand jury testimony, the White House asserted that because both the president and the vice president have the constitutional authority to declassify intelligence information, any authorizations given by either man were proper.
"The president can declassify information if he chooses," said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. "It's inherent in our Constitution. He is the head of the executive branch."
McClellan also said the authorizations were justified because administration critics were making "irresponsible and unfounded accusations…against the administration, suggesting that we had manipulated or misused that intelligence. That was flat-out false.... And because of the public debate that was going on and some of the wild accusations that were flying around at the time, we felt it was very much in the public interest that what information could be declassified, be declassified. And that's exactly what we did."
On February 17, 2006, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, charged in a letter to John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, that the most "damaging revelations of intelligence sources and methods are generated primarily by Executive Branch officials pushing a particular policy, and not by rank-and-file employees of intelligence agencies."
Later in the same letter, Rockefeller said: "Given the Administration's continuing abuse of intelligence information for political purposes, its criticism of leaks is extraordinarily hypocritical. Preventing damage to intelligence sources and methods from media leaks will not be possible until the highest level of the Administration ceases to disclose classified information on a classified basis for political purposes."
Exhibit A for Rockefeller was a book by Washington Post Managing Editor Bob Woodward about the run-up to the war with Iraq. "In his 2002 book 'Bush at War,'" Rockefeller wrote, "Bob Woodward described almost unfettered access to classified material of the most sensitive nature. According to his account, he was provided information related to sources and methods, extremely sensitive covert actions, and foreign intelligence liaison relationships. It is no wonder, as Director Goss wrote, `because of the number of recent news reports discussing our relationships with other intelligence services, some of these partners have even informed the C.I.A. that they are reconsidering their participation of some of our most important antiterrorism ventures.'"
In his letter, Rockefeller said he wrote to both former CIA Director George Tenet and Acting Director John McLaughlin "seeking to determine what steps were being taken to address the appalling disclosures contained in 'Bush at War.' The... response I received was to indicate that the leaks had been authorized by the Administration."
Citing other examples of alleged leaks of classified information by Bush administration officials, Rockefeller charged that "blatant abuse of intelligence information for political purposes is inexcusable, but all too common. Throughout this period leading up to the Iraq war the Administration selectively declassified or leaked information related to Iraq's acquisition of aluminum tubes, the alleged purchase of uranium, the non-existent operational connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and numerous other issues."
Regarding the recent firing of McCarthy, former Deputy CIA Director Richard J. Kerr said in an interview, "She was a very qualified analyst in a variety of jobs. She had strong views sometimes, but I don't know anyone who would describe her as a zealot or ideologue."
Still, Kerr said, if McCarthy did leak classified information the press, she behaved wrongly and should be held accountable. "If she believed there was something morally wrong or illegal going on, there were mechanisms within the system to go up the line, or complain," Kerr said. "The other possibility for her or anyone else is to quit and speak once you are outside."
But Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and State Department counterterrorism official, disagrees: "During this administration, there have been any number of CIA officers who have brought up issues through channels internally. There have been intelligence officers who have brought up things within their own agencies, and even spoken to congressional intelligence committees or presidential commissions. But they have found themselves completely ignored."
-- Previous coverage of pre-war intelligence and the CIA leak investigation from Murray Waas. Brian Beutler provided research assistance for this report.