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Security leak inquiry sought

Officials want to know who told the media about two Arabic messages that were intercepted Sept. 10.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 21, 2002


WASHINGTON -- Under pressure from angry White House officials, Sen. Bob Graham and Rep. Porter Goss asked the Justice Department to investigate who told reporters that the National Security Agency intercepted two cryptic messages on the eve of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Arabic messages, which referred to an upcoming "match" and "zero hour," were intercepted Sept. 10 but not read by analysts until Sept. 12.

The Florida lawmakers, who are co-chairing a House-Senate inquiry into intelligence lapses, said they were alarmed about the news leaks. Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, the director of the NSA, testified before the joint committee in a closed-door session Tuesday.

"We are entrusted to keep these secrets," said Goss, R-Sanibel. He said it is especially important to protect classified information during wartime because "there are terrorists listening, I am sure, and I don't want to do anything to aid and abet them."

Vice President Dick Cheney called Goss and Graham on Thursday to complain that the leaks may have come from their joint committee.

"The vice president was not a happy man," Graham said. "He emphasized the fact that the administration was attempting to be cooperative with our investigation and provided us with a large amount of material, but the understanding was it would be handled with discretion."

It is not clear whether the NSA intercepts signaled the attacks on Washington and New York. But Graham, a Florida Democrat, called the messages "classified information that should not have been publicly disclosed."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called the leak "alarmingly specific" and said President Bush has "very deep concerns about anything that would be inappropriately leaked that could in any way endanger America's ability to gather intelligence information, anything that could harm our ability to maintain sources and methods, and anything that could interfere with America's ability to fight the war on terrorism."

Initial stories about the messages came two weeks ago from USA Today, Knight Ridder and CBS News. This week, CNN and the Washington Post provided more details. Thursday's Post had a front-page headline that shouted, "NSA Intercepts on Eve of 9/11 Sent a Warning."

All of the stories attributed the information to anonymous sources. USA Today's story cited "two U.S. intelligence officials." CNN attributed it to "congressional and other sources."

Goss, asked if the Justice Department investigators should interrogate reporters, said, "I realize there is a time-honored tradition that reporters protect their sources. I think when we're dealing with national security, it is useful for reporters to cooperate with people who are conducting bona fide investigations."

Leaking is a Washington tradition, especially on Capitol Hill. By leaking information to a reporter, members of Congress can make a point without leaving their fingerprints.

A letter seeking the Justice Department investigation was sent Thursday by the leadership of the joint committee -- Goss, Graham, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

At a press briefing, the panel members did not speculate on who released the information, but they all criticized leaking.

Pelosi said the leaks were "intolerable." Shelby noted that he had written an anti-leaking bill that President Clinton vetoed.

But Shelby also said, "I do believe that the American people need to know a lot about the shortcomings of our intelligence community. But they also need to know the good things that are going on. What we're going to do in this investigation, I believe, is bring out the best of both."

Bush clashed with Congress about leaks last fall. On Oct. 5, he issued a memo limiting sensitive congressional briefings to the top leaders of the House and Senate and their intelligence committees. He dropped the restrictions a week later after getting assurances from Graham and Goss that they would rein in unauthorized disclosures.

But even if the leak came from someone on the committee, it's not clear they broke the law.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, said it depends on what type of classified information was disclosed. He said members of Congress have constitutional protections for free speech.

"It has never happened that anyone (in Congress) is charged with a crime" for leaking, he said. "That is really politically unthinkable."

Yet Aftergood, who has sued the government to obtain access to secret documents, said he was concerned about the nature of the information that was leaked.

"I think that the administration has a case," he said. "Electronic intercepts are among the most important intelligence sources we have and they are also among the most fragile. Chances are that whoever spoke those words that were quoted now realizes that his communications were monitored. And many other individuals have now been alerted to the fact of such monitoring. There is the potential for harm."

-- Times researchers John Martin and Cathy Wos contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.

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