November 08, 2005,
The CIA has referred the case of a Washington Post article about the agency's "covert prison system" to the Justice Department for possible investigation as a case of improperly disclosed classified information.
"Yes, a report was filed with the Department of Justice suggesting that classified information may have been revealed," a United States official told National Review late Tuesday. "It's something that happens with some frequency."
Another U.S. official said the matter could involve serious issues. "If you were putting out information about a program, including suggesting sites were in certain countries, that would be classified," the official said. "If you were talking about a presidential finding, that would be classified."
The November 2 report in the Post discussed "a covert prison system set up by the CIA nearly four years ago that at various times has included sites in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and several democracies in Eastern Europe, as well as a small center at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, according to current and former intelligence officials and diplomats from three continents." The paper said the existence and location of the facilities "are known to only a handful of officials in the United States and, usually, only to the president and a few top intelligence officers in each host country." And the Post suggested that it knew even more about the program than it included in the article, saying, "The Washington Post is not publishing the names of the Eastern European countries involved in the covert program, at the request of senior U.S. officials."
The question of leaking has become a particularly urgent issue in the wake of the indictment of Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, on charges of perjury, making false statements, and obstruction of justice as part of the Plamegate matter. Those charges grew out of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into whether any administration officials improperly leaked information about the classified status of CIA official Valerie Plame Wilson.
Administration critics have cited the fact that the CIA referred the Plame/Wilson incident to the Justice Department as evidence that the agency took the matter very seriously.
If it were pursued in a manner similar to the Plame/Wilson case, a CIA prison-leak investigation would involve several questions similar to those that have been discussed in the press in recent months. Is the existence of the prisons classified information? If so, did a government official give that classified information to someone a reporter who was not authorized to receive it, in possible violation of the 1917 Espionage Act? Did that official give other classified information to the paper which does not appear in the article, the disclosure of which might also constitute a violation of the Espionage Act? Should the president order government officials, including those at the CIA, to sign waivers releasing reporters from any pledges of confidentiality made in the reporting of this story? Should Washington Post reporters or other journalists be forced by a court to reveal the content of their discussions with confidential sources?
All could become crucial questions. Or it is possible that the Justice Department will decide not to pursue the matter. In any event, the issue is now in the hands of Justice Department officials.
Byron York, NR's White House correspondent, is the author of the new book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President and Why They'll Try Even Harder Next Time.