The Magazine

One Good Leak
Deserves Another

How the CIA got the ball rolling on the Plame investigation.

Oct 31, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 07 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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(We now know that neither of those claims is true. Wilson's oral report was not ignored, though it appears never to have found its way to the officials, at both the CIA and the White House, responsible for clearing presidential language on Iraq and uranium. And, as the Senate Intelligence Committee report of July 2004 makes clear, Wilson did not conclude in his report to the CIA that there was no evidence Iraq had sought uranium from Niger. In fact, the CIA analysts on the receiving end of Wilson's report told the intelligence committee staff that Wilson's findings had made a uranium deal seem more plausible and, if anything, appeared to confirm the earlier intelligence on Iraq's nuclear ambitions in Africa.)

So who were the chief beneficiaries of the leak to NBC News about the CIA referral to the Justice Department? Joseph Wilson and the CIA.

"We all assumed that it was the [Central Intelligence] Agency that leaked it to ratchet up the war that they were having with the White House," says a former Justice Department official.

The referral process works like this. The CIA monitors media reporting to determine whether there has been a disclosure of classified information. When such an incident occurs, the CIA notifies the Justice Department. Justice then sends a questionnaire to the CIA to obtain more information about the possible breach and, if warranted, opens an investigation. (In recent years, these two steps have been collapsed into one: The CIA simply sends a completed questionnaire to the Justice Department.) There are approximately 50 such referrals from the CIA to the Justice Department each year. Few of these result in prosecutions, and fewer still are ever disclosed to the public.

In the months before the Iraq war, officials at the CIA engaged in a broad campaign of leaks designed to undermine the Bush administration's case for war. It was a clever hedge. The finished intelligence products distributed by the agency made a strong case that Iraq was continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction. Dissenting assessments were buried in footnotes. (These "intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program," said Senator Hillary Clinton on October 9, 2002, an unlikely shill for the Bush administration.)

But the agency leadership knew its assessments amounted to an educated guess. It was an entirely defensible educated guess, based on a decade of deceit by the Iraq regime and reinforced by behavior that suggested the regime's work on weapons continued. But it was an educated guess nonetheless.

Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack paints a particularly devastating picture of CIA cluelessness. Woodward interviewed "Saul," the chief of the Iraqi Operations Group at the CIA. Writes Woodward:

Saul was discovering that the CIA reporting sources inside Iraq were pretty thin. What was thin? "I can count them on one hand," Saul said, pausing for effect, "and I can still pick my nose." There were four. And those sources were in Iraqi ministries such as foreign affairs and oil that were on the periphery of any penetration of Saddam's inner circle.

A war in Iraq risked exposing this incompetence, and the CIA began to wage its own preemptive war: Leaks from the agency implied that analysts were being pressured into their aggressive assessments. Footnotes filled with caveats became more important than primary texts. This campaign intensified after the war, with the failure to find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. It culminated in the leaking to the news media of the CIA's referral of the Plame matter to the Justice Department.

None of this should be mistaken for an attempt to minimize the seriousness of knowingly and deliberately leaking the name of a CIA operative. If that is what happened in this case, a full prosecution is not only justifiable but necessary.

Even so, this entire episode reeks of hypocrisy and blatant double standards. The result may well be a renewed interest in prosecuting leakers of classified information. That would be an unfortunate development for reasons long articulated by the political left--the silencing of dissent and the muzzling of whistleblowers.

But if prosecuting leakers becomes the norm, certainly the CIA cannot expect to be exempt from prosecution. Can it?

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.