FOR FOUR YEARS, A slow-motion war between the CIA and the Bush administration has been unfolding over America's airwaves and on its front pages. A principal weapon in this war has been the deliberate leaking of information to the media.

When the history of this damaging episode is written, two leaks will stand out as having been most consequential. One of them is famous: the alleged leak to columnist Robert Novak that led to the compromising of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

But there was another big leak that no one seems to care about: the leak of the CIA's referral to the Justice Department concerning the Plame matter. That second disclosure, perhaps even more than the initial leak, set off the chain of events that resulted in the naming of a special prosecutor and finds us now anticipating indictments of senior White House officials.

Some additional relevant details: The CIA referral to the Justice Department was classified, an intelligence source tells The Weekly Standard. Anyone who disclosed the existence of the referral and described its contents broke the law. The agency, however, has thus far refused to send a referral to the Justice Department that could result in an investigation into the source and effects of that leak. Why? An intelligence source tells The Weekly Standard that there are limits--of time and manpower--to how many such referrals the CIA can make. Perhaps. But there's another possible explanation: The second leak came from the CIA itself, and lawyers there are reluctant to call for an investigation for fear of what such an investigation might reveal.

On Friday, September 26, 2003, NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell and MSNBC's Alex Johnson broke a big story on the MSNBC website. "The CIA has asked the Justice Department to investigate allegations that the White House broke federal laws by revealing the identity of one of its undercover employees in retaliation against the woman's husband, a former ambassador who publicly criticized President Bush's since-discredited claim that Iraq had sought weapons-grade uranium from Africa, NBC News has learned."

This report came after a lull in the narrative. Joseph Wilson, Plame's husband, had accused the Bush administration of disclosing his wife's identity to retaliate for his "truth-telling." He boasted in speeches that he would mount a campaign to get Karl Rove "frog-marched" out of the White House in handcuffs. And while many reporters in Washington may have been sympathetic to Wilson, few took his threat seriously.

That changed with the news from NBC that the CIA had referred the case to the Justice Department for investigation. Other news organizations scrambled to catch up. Over the next two weeks the New York Times would run nearly three dozen stories on the case, the Washington Post more than forty. News reports noted the close relationship between Attorney General John Ashcroft and the White House. Editorials called for Ashcroft to recuse himself. Prominent Democrats stepped up their calls for a special prosecutor.

Trying to determine the source of leaks is a popular parlor game in Washington. The obvious question: Who does the leak hurt and who does it help? With that in mind, the leak of the CIA referral achieved two important results. First, it embarrassed the White House and put pressure on the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor. A September 29, 2003, news story in the New York Times is illustrative. It reads, "The very fact that Mr. Tenet referred the matter to the Justice Department comes as a major political embarrassment to a White House that is famously tight-lipped, and a president who has repeatedly vowed that his administration would never leak classified information."

The second effect of the leak was equally obvious. It produced a series of news stories in which journalists reported uncritically the claims of the CIA and Joseph Wilson regarding the original Iraq-Niger uranium deal and stated unequivocally that the White House had simply ignored their strong warnings about the intelligence.

From the same September 29, 2003, New York Times story: "The agent is the wife of Joseph C. Wilson 4th, a former ambassador to Gabon. It was Mr. Wilson who, more than a year and a half ago, concluded in a report to the CIA that there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium ore in Niger in an effort to build nuclear arms. But his report was ignored, and Ambassador Wilson has been highly critical of how the administration handled intelligence claims regarding Iraq's nuclear weapons programs, suggesting that Mr. Bush's aides and Vice President Dick Cheney's office tried to inflate the threat."

(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.

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