The other CIA leak case

Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert had a big idea. Could it have been any worse?

Published November 9, 2005 2:20PM (EST)

The new conventional wisdom on George W. Bush is that he's suffering from some sort of bunker mentality, that he's living in a bubble where he's hearing from too few people and not getting a good feel for how his decisions play in the political world.

Can we say the same today about Bill First and Dennis Hastert?

The Washington Post ran a story last week about a network of secret prisons around the world in which the United States is said to be holding top al-Qaida suspects. The story raised important questions: Who are the people being held? How long will they be kept? How will they be treated? Is this the sort of thing we want our government to be doing in the first place?

But as we reported yesterday, the question Frist and Hastert want answered is this: Who leaked the story to the Washington Post? Even before Trent Lott suggested that Republican senators were probably responsible for the leak, we thought there was a certain tone-deaf quality to the Frist-Hastert approach. It turns out that we weren't alone. Republican Rep. Christopher Shays tells the Post that he's OK with investigating the leak so long as Congress investigates the existence of the prisons, too. And Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, chimes in this way: "Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. The real story is those jails."

And the real problem, Republicans tell the Post, is that the Frist-Hastert approach seems almost uniquely suited to remind folks of stories that the GOP might like to push to the back burner. Mention "leak," and most people are going to think about Scooter Libby and Karl Rove, not prisons in far-off lands. Mention detainees and secret prisons, and a lot of people are going to be thinking about Abu Ghraib, about the questions concerning the treatment of detainees more generally, about torture and about the vice president's role in making sure that Americans are free to engage in it.

And that's just covering the initiation of the investigation Frist and Hastert want. What about its results? Appearing on CNN yesterday, Lott said he believed that the leak came not from Democrats but from Republican senators who learned about the secret prisons during a recent lunch meeting with ... Dick Cheney. "Every word that was said in there went right to the newspaper," Lott said. "We can't keep our mouths shut."

Perhaps Frist and Hastert ought to think a little more before opening theirs.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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