David Frum April 26th, 2006 at 12:00 am
A tale of two leaks:
One leak provoked an international scandal–it is the leak of the name of Valerie Plame, the CIA agent who arranged for her husband, Joseph Wilson, to travel to Niger in 2002 to investigate reports of Iraqi attempts to purchase nuclear fuel in Africa. You probably know the rest of the story. Wilson published a newspaper article in the summer of 2003 accusing the administration of deceit. The administration responded by pointing out that many of WilsonÕs statements were false or exaggerated. In the struggle, somebody divulged the Ms PlameÕs name. And since Ms Plame had worked as an undercover agent half a dozen years before, this divulgence was certainly improper, arguably illegal–but only very remotely a breach of national security.
The media, led by the New York Times, angrily demanded a special prosecutor. One was appointed, and he at length indicted Vice President CheneyÕs chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
Now the second leak, or rather set of leaks. The New York Times and the Washington Post have just both won Pulitzer Prizes for major revelations about US secret programs. The Times won its prize for revealing that the government was intercepting electronic conversations between terrorists abroad and sympathizers inside the United States, a practice that might (or might not) violate existing US law.
The Washington Postreported that friendly governments in Eastern Europe were detaining al Qaeda prisoners for questioning by the United States.
Unlike the Plame revelation, the Times and Post stories betrayed hugely important national secrets. The Times story alerted terrorist sympathizers in the United States that the government was monitoring them more closely than they realized. The Post story revealed the location of some of the worldÕs most dangerous prisoners. It invited terrorists to add Poland and Romania to their list of target countries. And since it was printed just as the European Union was finishing work on its multiyear budget, the story created an opportunity for governments who disapproved of PolandÕs robustly Atlanticist foreign policy to retaliate by cutting back PolandÕs EU budget allocations.
But thereÕs another way in which the Times and Post stories differ from the Plame revelations–and that is the remarkable lack of enthusiasm in the press for investigating and punishing the leakers.
The woman fired for leaking the Post story, Mary McCarthy of the CIA, has denied being the PostÕs source. My National Review colleague Byron York, a close student of the Plame case, has asked (with heavy sarcasm):
“What now? Well, using the template established in the Plame/ Fitzgerald investigation, the next steps seem clear. First, the Justice Department will begin an investigation. Then, McCarthy, like Lewis Libby, Karl Rove, and many White House staffers, will sign a waiver releasing Priest [the Washington Post reporter who broke the Eastern European prisons story] from any pledge of confidentiality.
Next, prosecutors will subpoena Priest to tell prosecutors what McCarthy told her. Then, if Priest argues that McCarthy’s waiver was coerced, McCarthy will assure Priest that it was given willingly and give her blessing to Priest’s testimony. And then Priest, like Judith Miller [a New York Times reporter who received leaks in the Plame/ Wilson case] Matthew Cooper [a Newsweek reporter who also received Plame/Wilson leaks], and others, will–under oath–tell prosecutors precisely what McCarthy said.
Well of course not right. The US press these days sharply distinguishes between leaks that do harm to Bush administration policies–which are patriotic, commendable, and to be protected by the First Amendment–and leaks which discredit Bush administration critics–which are vicious, deplorable attacks on national security to be prosecuted to the limit of the law.
That distinction is very convenient for the administrationÕs many political opponents. It is tragically destructive for the United States.