Like a master hitting his dog with a rolled-up newspaper, President Bush scolded Congress on Tuesday for leaking classified information, calling the leaks “wrong” and “unacceptable.”
Bush was particularly upset about a front-page above-the-fold story in last Friday’s Washington Post, which detailed a meeting last Tuesday where FBI and CIA officials told members of Congress that there was a “100 percent” chance of another terrorist attack should the U.S. military launch a military operation in Afghanistan.
The incident last week was especially aggravating, Bush explained, as it came right before the U.S. military launched its attacks on Taliban and al-Qaida targets in Afghanistan. Bush also signed a memo Friday directing key members of the federal government to only share classified information with eight specific members of Congress — the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House, Senate, and Intelligence Committees.
Asked about the memo on Tuesday in a press event with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Bush explained the situation to his counterpart before answering the question.
“Mr. Chancellor, we had some security briefings take place up on Capitol Hill that were a discussion about classified information and some of that information was shared with the press,” Bush said.
“Oh, we know that trouble,” Schroeder moaned in agreement.
It’s common wisdom in Washington that Congress leaks like a sieve, but in wartime that reality could have dire consequences. The problem is that while the White House does not trust members of Congress to keep secrets, there is that pesky Constitution, requiring congressional oversight over White House actions. Faced with these conflicting principles, Bush has chosen to err on the side of caution. “These are extraordinary times,” Bush said. “Our nation has put our troops at risk, and therefore I felt it was important to send a clear signal to Congress that classified information must be held dear.”
Bush didn’t identify the leaker, but his anger was manifest. “Somebody — or somebodies — feel they should be allowed to talk about classified information. And that’s just wrong. I want Congress to hear loud and clear it is unacceptable behavior to leak classified information when we have troops at risk.” He acknowledged that his decision may have caused “some heartburn on Capitol Hill.”
Bush sent his memo to the heads of the FBI and CIA and members of the Cabinet. In the memo, Bush instructed the intelligence agencies to notably exclude the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate committees on Armed Services and Foreign Affairs from receiving the delicate information.
“This administration will continue to work to inform the leadership of the Congress about the course of and important developments in our military, intelligence and law enforcement operations,” the memo stated. “At the same time, we have an obligation to protect military operational security, intelligence sources and methods, and sensitive law enforcement investigations.”
Or, as White House press secretary Ari Fleischer more starkly put it on Tuesday, “It’s an effort to make certain that Congress has the information that it needs, while making certain that nobody is put in a position where they inadvertently could give any information that could harm anybody’s life.”
Congressional reaction to the memo was decidedly mixed. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle originally backed the move, telling CNN Tuesday morning that “I think it is fair. Under these circumstances, we really have to be concerned about national security.” But after a meeting with Democratic senators later in the day, Daschle seemed to back off that support.
While saying he was “very distressed” about some of the leaks, Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN that “in order to do our job, we have to get the briefings.” He said he wasn’t sure that Bush could instruct the CIA not to brief him and his colleagues. “The CIA works with both the Congress and the president, so I’m not sure that we could be cut off.”
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the vice chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a member of the committee, also said that they disagreed with the White House’s decision.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the committee, said that he thought Bush didn’t actually intend to keep all classified information from him, as he, Warner, and their committee would obviously need to know how many cruise missiles the military had before they could authorize and appropriate funds for more.
As one House leadership aide quipped, “There are 535 members of Congress, and eight of them are going to get information. So that leaves 527 very unhappy people.”
On the other hand, some — like the House Armed Services Committee chairman, Rep. Bob Stump, R-Ariz. — said that they had no problem with the decision.
“My philosophy is the fewer people who know about some of these things, the better off we are,” Stump, R-Ariz., told the Associated Press. “I firmly believe in the need to know. Many times, there really is no need to know.”
Additionally, a spokesman for Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., the chairman of the House Committee on International Relations, said that there was nothing new or unprecedented about the concept of “the gang of eight.” Hyde, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee from 1985 to 1991, was included in that “core group” during other sensitive times, “whether the Panamanian assault in 1989 or in the run up to Desert Storm,” said press secretary Sam Stratman. “So he understands the decision. That’s the mechanism.”
The eight who will continue to receive the classified information include the four congressional leaders: Daschle, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. On Tuesday, Bush said that these four individuals understood the importance of not disclosing classified information.
The four leaders of the Select Committees on Intelligence will also continue to receive the updates. In the Senate that includes chairman Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and vice-chair Sen. Dick Shelby, R-Ala., and in the House, Reps. Porter Goss, R-Fla., and Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Once one cut through the president’s anger and frustration, it wasn’t clear that his “gang of eight” policy was non-negotiable. He allowed that “if there’s concerns, we’ll work it out.” Levin’s desire for Armed Services Committee briefings by the Defense Department would be OK’d, Bush implied. At his weekly breakfast meeting with Daschle, Lott, Hastert and Gephardt he anticipated hearing “feedback from their members, and we will discuss it.”
And after a Tuesday evening meeting with the leaders of the House and Senate Foreign Relations committees, Bush’s directive seemed even less set in stone. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate committee, said that Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, pointed out to the president that the law requires his committee on the House side to be briefed. Biden said that Bush replied, “I have no intention of not doing that. I’m going to abide by the law, and I hope you can help us all in making it clear to your colleagues that we are very upset with any leaking.”
“He indicated — and I shared his view — he indicated he was angry about the leaks,” Biden said.
In the end, the larger point seemed to be that members of Congress should keep their traps shut. “One thing is for certain,” Bush said. “I have made clear what I expect from Capitol Hill when it comes to classified information.”
The issue of congressional leaks began within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, went on TV on Sept. 11 and said that intelligence officials had told him that “everything is pointing in the direction of Osama bin Laden. They have an intercept of some information that includes people associated with bin Laden who acknowledged a couple of targets were hit.”
The next day, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that “It’s important to underline that when people deal with intelligence information and make it available to people who are not cleared for that classified information, the effect is to reduce the chances that the United States government has to track down and deal” with the terrorists. Moreover, Rumsfeld said, when such information is shared with individuals not cleared to receive it, “the inevitable effect is that the lives of men and women in uniform are put at risk.” Rumsfeld did not refer to anyone in specific, but his comments were widely interpreted as a schooling of Hatch.
Fleischer said that it was OK to keep information from the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee chairmen because “not every aspect of their job deals with having immediate information of classified nature about what may be happening on a military operation on an operational sense.”
Asked if there were any historical precedents for such a move, Fleischer treated reporters to a taste of sarcasm. “I very much appreciate your desire to have a large group as possible of people who have this information,” he said, “but I’ve said about all I’m going to say on this topic.”