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Good Leak or Bad Leak, You Decide

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This morning's Washington Post on its front page bragged (mildly, to
be sure) that it had won four Pulitzers as against the three won by the
New York Times. But that still can't make up for the really shocking
Post lead editorial published on April 9 entitled "A Good Leak" that I
circulated earlier. On April 16, one week later, the New York Times
published an answering editorial entitled "A Bad Leak," taking the
contrary position. Here is the text of the Times editorial, which I
believe displays the very big difference between the editorial pages of
these two papers that are our most influential.

April 16, 2006

 A Bad Leak

President Bush says he declassified portions of the prewar intelligence
assessment on Iraq because he "wanted people to see the truth" about
Iraq's weapons programs and to understand why he kept accusing Saddam
Hussein of stockpiling weapons that turned out not to exist. This would
be a noble sentiment if it actually bore any relationship to Mr. Bush's
actions in this case, or his overall record.

Mr. Bush did not declassify the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq —
in any accepted sense of that word — when he authorized I. Lewis Libby
Jr., through Vice President Dick Cheney, to talk about it with
reporters. He permitted a leak of cherry-picked portions of the report.
The declassification came later.

And this president has never shown the slightest interest in disclosure,
except when it suits his political purposes. He has run one of the most
secretive administrations in American history, consistently withholding
information and vital documents not just from the public, but also from
Congress. Just the other day, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the
House Judiciary Committee that the names of the lawyers who reviewed Mr.
Bush's warrantless wiretapping program were a state secret.

Obviously, we do not object to government officials talking to reporters
about important matters that their bosses do not want discussed. It
would be impossible to cover any administration, especially one so
secretive as this, unless that happened. (Judith Miller, who then worked
for The Times, was one of the reporters Mr. Libby chose for this leak,
although she never wrote about it.) But the version of the facts that
Mr. Libby was authorized to divulge was so distorted that it seems more
like disinformation than any sincere attempt to inform the public.

This fits the pattern of Mr. Bush's original sales pitch on the Iraq war
— hyping the intelligence that bolstered his case and suppressing the
intelligence that undercut it. In this case, Mr. Libby was authorized to
talk about claims that Iraq had tried to buy uranium for nuclear weapons
in Africa and not more reliable evidence to the contrary.

About a month before, Mr. Bush rushed to announce that American forces
had found evidence of a biological weapons program in Iraq — trailers
that could have been used to make doomsday devices. We now know, from a
report in The Washington Post, that a Pentagon team actually on the
ground in Iraq inspecting the trailers had concluded two days earlier
that they were nothing of the kind.

The White House says Mr. Bush was not aware of that report, and was
relying on an assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency and the
Defense Intelligence Agency. This is hardly the first time we've been
told that intelligence reports contradicting administration doctrine
somehow did not make it to Mr. Bush's desk. But it does not explain why
he and Mr. Cheney went on talking about the trailers for weeks, during
which the State Department's intelligence division — about the only
agency that got it right about Iraq — debunked the mobile-labs theory.

Of course, the inaccurate report saying that the trailers were
bioweapons labs was made public, immediately, while the accurate one was
kept secret until a reporter found out about it.

Since Mr. Bush regularly denounces leakers, the White House has made
much of the notion that he did not leak classified information, he
declassified it. This explanation strains credulity. Even a president
cannot wave a wand and announce that an intelligence report is

To declassify an intelligence document, officials have to decide whether
disclosing the information would jeopardize the sources that provided it
or the methods used to gather it. To answer that question, they closely
study the origins of the intelligence to be disclosed. Had Mr. Bush done
that, he should have seen that the most credible information made it
clear that the Niger story was wrong. (In any case, Iraq's supposed
attempt to buy uranium from Niger happened four years before the
invasion, and failed. The idea that this amounted to a current,
aggressive and continuing campaign to build nuclear weapons in 2002 — as
Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney called it — is laughable.)

This messy episode leaves more questions than answers, so it is
imperative that two things happen soon. First, the federal prosecutor in
the Libby case should release the transcripts of what Mr. Bush and Mr.
Cheney said when he questioned them. And the Senate Intelligence
Committee must report publicly on how Mr. Bush and his team used the
flawed intelligence on Iraq. Senator Pat Roberts, the committee
chairman, says the panel will meet this month to discuss three of the
report's five sections. That's a step. And it has taken only two years
to get this far.