The Lessons of Leaks

In the fall of 2004, as President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry entered the home stretch of the presidential campaign, portions of a bleak intelligence estimate about the future of Iraq were leaked to reporters. Among the most alarming findings was the possibility that sectarian violence and political incompetence in Iraq's fledgling governmental institutions could ignite a civil war. Bush had seen this report months earlier, but in his public remarks, he didn't ratchet down his sunny optimism about Iraq's future. Did intelligence analysts privy to the Iraq report's contents decide to leak them in order to embarrass the president and trip up his reelection bid?

The president thought so. A former senior intelligence official who spoke regularly with the president told me Bush became convinced that a left-wing contingent of CIA employees had given the embarrassing information to reporters. Bush also thought that this fit a pattern of information control emanating from Langley. Earlier the same year, The New York Times and The Washington Post had run the first stories about the CIA's covert program of detaining and interrogating certain "high-value terrorists." A former CIA official, who was directly involved in the program, told me that alarm bells went off at headquarters. The information contained in the news reports was so specific--and accurate--that senior officials presumed the leak must have come from within the agency's Counterterrorist Center, which was managing the program day-to-day, or the larger operations directorate, of which the CTC was a part. At the time John Helgerson, the inspector general, had just wrapped up a lengthy report about the program, which quoted CIA officers who were convinced that the agency's activities would be exposed by the media.

The fall of 2004 marked an apex in the White House's bitter public feud with the CIA. A year earlier, Bush had found himself defending the now infamous charge that Iraq had tried to purchase enriched uranium from Africa. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice took great pains, in press briefings and on Sunday talk shows, to point the finger back at the agency that vetted the president's remark, contained in a State of the Union Address. "I can tell you, if the CIA, the Director of Central Intelligence, had said, 'Take this out of the speech,' it would have been gone, without question," she told reporters aboard Air Force One while traveling with the president in Africa. On that same trip, Bush also turned the tables on his spies: "I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services."

Bush survived re-election, but the CIA director, George Tenet, didn't fare so well. In June 2004, he announced his retirement, after accepting responsibility for including the disputed line in the president's speech. To replace him, Bush tapped one-time CIA operative and chairman of the House intelligence committee Porter Goss. He was widely seen as a clean up man, sent to quell a restive agency that had politically lined up against the administration.

Goss was in office for just over a year when, in November 2005, Dana Priest published a blockbuster expose in The Washington Post about the agency's overseas network of "black sites," where the high-value terrorists were held and interrogated. This touched off a massive leak investigation at the agency in which senior officers, including Helgerson, were forced to take polygraph examinations. One former CIA officer, a veteran of almost 30 years, told me he was hooked up to the lie detector and asked what contacts he'd had recently with journalists. Another officer, the one who was directly involved in the interrogation program, said that the agency's leadership believed the Post would not have run a story with only one source, and so there must have been several leaks. "Everyone was a suspect," he said.

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