Today's revelations in the Washington Post regarding the Bush administration's September 7th leaking of an Osama Bin Laden videotape served to once again highlight the hypocritical Republican double-standard when it comes to the publication of classified national security information.
As the CIA black sites and illegal NSA domestic surveillance stories all show, the President and his amen corner are quick to call for the prosecution of those who reveal White House criminality. But when Bush and his GOP allies through political calculation or just sheer incompetence release national security secrets, that's another matter altogether.
The WaPo story describes how the Bush administration in a single day destroyed a network and information flow built up over a year by the private security firm SITE Intelligence Group. Through its contacts, SITE secretly acquired on the morning of September 7 a new Osama Bin Laden video. Company officials immediately made the tape available to the U.S. intelligence community on the condition that government officials not reveal it until Al Qaeda's official release. As the Post describes, the Bush administration immediately violated that confidentiality pledge, rendering SITE's painfully constructed network of sources useless:
Within 20 minutes, a range of intelligence agencies had begun downloading it from the company's Web site. By midafternoon that day, the video and a transcript of its audio track had been leaked from within the Bush administration to cable television news and broadcast worldwide...
"Techniques that took years to develop are now ineffective and worthless," said Rita Katz, the firm's 44-year-old founder.
As the Post reports, the Bush administration took this devastating loss of an essential American intelligence asset in stride. Fresh off her performance defending the President's secret torture memos, Frances Fragos Townsend, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, made the administration's bungling sound almost routine:
"Frankly this is going to be an issue for the DNI to look at, to understand what happened...the Director of National Intelligence and the intelligence community will need to look at who had access to it. It will be a typical leak investigation."
Of course, that all depends on what is meant by typical.
As I reported in August, the Bush administration has spared no effort in tracking down and punishing the leaker(s) behind the New York Times December 2005 revelations regarding illicit domestic surveillance of Americans by the NSA. Even as Congress was debating draconian revisions to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), team of FBI agents raided the home of Thomas M. Tamm, a veteran prosecutor and former official of the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR) within DOJ. (For more details, see "Payback Time: FBI Raids Home of Suspected NSA Leaker.")
As Newsweek detailed, the campaign to punish NSA whistle-blowers reflect not only the administration's misplaced priorities, but its absolute commitment to seeking vengeance against its opponents:
The raid also came while the White House and Congress were battling over expanding NSA wiretapping authority in order to plug purported "surveillance gaps." James X. Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology said the raid was "amazing" and shows the administration's misplaced priorities: using FBI agents to track down leakers instead of processing intel warrants to close the gaps. A Justice spokesman declined to comment.
After the revelations about the NSA program by the New York Times in December 2005, On December 19th, President Bush raged about what he deemed "a shameful act" that is "helping the enemy". Claiming he didn't order an investigation, Bush added "the Justice Department, I presume, will proceed forward with a full investigation" At a subsequent press conference that same day, Alberto Gonzales suggested the retribution that was to come:
"As to whether or not there will be a leak investigation, as the President indicated, this is really hurting national security, this has really hurt our country, and we are concerned that a very valuable tool has been compromised. As to whether or not there will be a leak investigation, we'll just have to wait and see."
For the goose-steppers in President Bush's amen corner, retribution against those bringing the White House's crimes and misdeeds to light can't come soon - or harshly - enough. The day after the Tamm raid in the NSA case, Gabriel Schoenfeld took to the pages of Commentary to renew his 2006 claim that the New York Times should be prosecuted under federal criminal statutes, if not the Espionage Act of 1917.
"With the investigation making progress, the possibility remains that even if the New York Times is not indicted, its reporters - James Risen and Eric Lichtblau - might be called before the grand jury and asked to confirm under oath that Tamm, or some other suspect, was their source. That is what happened to a whole battalion of journalists in the investigation of Scooter Libby in the Valerie Plame fiasco.
If Risen and Lichtblau promised their source confidentiality, they might choose not to testify. That would potentially place them, like Judith Miller in the Libby investigation, in contempt of court and even land them in prison."
Not surprisingly, the Republican zeal for prosecuting leakers of national security information quickly fades when they themselves are the leakers.
The outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame in the wake of her husband's dismantling of the administration's claims regarding Iraq's pursuit of uranium in Africa provides a case in point. As you might recall, a nonchalant President Bush had this to say about the person(s) who outed Plame on October 7, 2003:
"I don't know if we're going to find out the senior administration official. Now, this is a large administration, and there's a lot of senior officials. I don't have any idea. I'd like to. I want to know the truth. That's why I've instructed this staff of mine to cooperate fully with the investigators -- full disclosure, everything we know the investigators will find out."
As the massive right-wing effort mobilized behind the Scooter Libby Legal Defense Fund and President Bush's later commutation of Libby's sentence suggest, leaking in the pursuit of the administration's political enemies is a different matter altogether. Such noble acts, apparently, represents the highest achievement in the Republican notion of public service.
PlameGate is far from the only example of the conservative belief in selective retribution for national security leaks. In 2003, Vice President Cheney famously authorized the cherry-picked declassification of elements of the 2002 Iraq NIE as part of a campaign to smear Ambassador Joseph Wilson over his public decimation of the White House's uranium in Niger canard. As the National Journal reported in April 2006, leak plugging stalwart and Kansas Senator Pat Roberts (then the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman) leaked details regarding Saddam Hussein's whereabouts on March 20, 2003 even as the Iraq war was just underway. And just last week, House Minority Leader John Boehner described classified details of the supposed "intelligence gap" created by a FISA judge's ruling, all in an effort to pressure his Democratic opponents to cave to President Bush's demands for expanded domestic surveillance authority.
On the same day that the Post revealed the Bush administration's disastrous leak of the Bin Laden videotape, a new White House report titled "National Strategy for Homeland Security" described Al Qaeda's renewed efforts to penetrate the U.S. homeland. With its leaks, the Bush White House has apparently made Bin Laden's task easier.
Just don't expect anyone to be punished for it.
UPDATE: The White House, of course, denies it had anything to do with the leak of the Bin Laden video, which just happened to first appear on a Fox News web site with attributions and links back to the SITE web site.