Investigating Leaks p.14

By: DEBRA GERSH HERNANDEZ PRESIDENT CLINTON is keeping a promise he made last June to investigate, and possibly prosecute, administration staffers who disclose national security information to the media or any other unauthorized party.
In his memo to cabinet officers last spring, the president expressed his displeasure over the disclosure of "highly sensitive, national security information," and promised that such action "cannot and will not be treated as innocent leaks of government information" (E&P, June 17, 1995, p. 9).
The president's memo also urged cabinet secretaries "to take appropriate administrative action against any federal employee, regardless of rank, who discloses classified information, and, in appropriate cases, to refer such disclosures to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution."
The administration has followed through on that dictum, most recently with an investigation of a leak to the Washington Times, which published two articles based on classified documents obtained by reporter Bill Gertz.
Ironically, the Clinton memo last spring was prompted by leaks to Gertz and subsequent articles in the Washington Times.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said this is not the first time an unauthorized disclosure has been investigated since the memo was written.
"Leaking is not the issue," McCurry told E&P. "The issue is the unauthorized disclosure of national security information. No matter who you give it to, it's all the same thing ? you provided information to those who are not authorized to have it."
McCurry added that he was "very keen on having people in the journalistic community understand this is not a witch hunt for reporters, or for leaks. It is a violation of federal law.
"If the White House knew a federal law had been violated and did nothing about it, the press would squawk about a coverup," he noted.
The Department of Justice was informed about the leak by the legal adviser to the National Security Council, which is the usual procedure, McCurry said.
The Justice Department now is in the process of making an assessment of that information, according to spokesman John Russell.
"If there were 40,000 copies of this memo distributed government-wide, then you have to make an assessment," he said.
The alleged leaker could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act or for theft of government property, if that person was not supposed to have the material, Russell explained.
One of the recent stories was based on a State Department cable that outlined a conversation between President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Egypt earlier this year.
The two presidents discussed, among other things, continuing good relations between the two nations, their pending presidential re-election campaigns and Russia's ban on poultry from the United States.
The other article detailed the U.S. arms negotiations strategy for the recent conference in Geneva.
McCurry originally charged that the Times was "illegally in possession of a classified document," but he later pulled back from that, saying his choice of words was "inartful" and placing the onus on the leaker, not the newspaper.
"This White House takes a very dim view of witch hunts for leaks," McCurry said. "It is a waste of time, and we don't engage in that.
"This is different," he explained, pointing out that it involves two classified documents ? one detailing "a confidential meeting between heads of state" and the other about arms negotiations.
"Both of those are properly classified. There's no dispute those should be classified documents. The issue is simply, who broke the law in providing that information" to an unauthorized source? McCurry added.
"We have no quarrel with the Washington Times or the reporter reporting what he gets. Our issue is with someone in the federal government who broke the law," McCurry said. "I'm not aware of any reason why anyone would suggest the Washington Times, or its reporter, conducts itself improperly."
After Gertz received the documents, he called McCurry to verify their authenticity.
"I did not attempt to dissuade him from using it," said McCurry, who was at the Clinton-Yeltsin meeting. "It appeared to me to be an accurate description of the meeting, but it clearly was a classified document. It would have been untruthful to tell him it was not authentic."
Gertz, said McCurry, knew two things: that the document was "classified and how it came to him, through a process in which a crime may have been committed. That's sometimes almost routine in Washington."
The second document, concerning the arms negotiations, was more sensitive, since it outlined instructions to the U.S. delegates for both the initial and fallback positions, McCurry said.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out we no longer have a fallback position," he noted. "That had a more damaging effect. Obviously, the Russians knew what we said to them, but it's an issue of principle. The president ought to be able to have a private discussion with the president of Russia."
Gertz, however, said the White House actions "definitely" have chilled his reporting.
"I think that seems to be their strategy, to make this a high-profile issue so that it will create an inhibiting effect on anyone who might talk to me," Gertz told E&P. "It's certainly chilling for the president's spokesman to come out and say they are going to prosecute" people who leak information.
Further, Gertz charged that there may be "selective indignation" over leaks, especially at the State Department, depending on which news outlet reports it.
Whenever he gets leaked information, Gertz said he tries "to examine what the motivation was" and he and his editors look "at what is the news impact of it."
For both these stories, Gertz said, there was a legitimate news interest.
While the Times normally "never would even consider clearing what we have with the government," during the reporting process he will alert the appropriate office, giving it the opportunity to register concerns.
"In this case, McCurry expressed concern to me about this possibly being dangerous to U.S.-Russian relations. I told him we have a procedure for that: have your boss call my boss," which did not happen, Gertz said.
Although Gertz said he so far has not been approached directly by investigators trying to uncover his source, a few years ago, under a previous administration, he was called by the FBI to a meeting about a leak investigation.
"I said, 'No thanks,' and alerted my editors here," he said.
And while Gertz said he has "gotten a lot of congratulations from reporters across the spectrum of the news industry," he nevertheless is "concerned about this idea that I think they're trying to put a chilling effect on my ability to do my job."
In an editorial headlined "Don't Blame Us," the Times opined that it was the administration, not the newspaper, that jeopardized national security through its dealings with the Russians, as outlined in the two stories.
"Mr. Clinton is engaged in some very high-stakes gambles to prop up the sitting Russian government (and Tyson's chicken empire, to boot)," the editorial read. "Clearly, the more we know about what he is up to, the better off we will be."
"I don't know if it chilled the folks at the Washington Times, but it chilled me to find out that person was under investigation," commented Freedom Forum First Amendment ombudsman Paul McMasters.
"I think there are First Amendment implications in the sense that every administration wouldn't fall all over itself trying to plug leaks when the answer is not to have so many secrets," McMasters added.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press executive director Jane Kirtley noted that it is worse when the government goes after reporters directly, "but the federal government has shown itself, time and time again, that it's not content with federal employees.
"Ever since Clinton sent out that memo last spring, I've had this sinking feeling that the Clinton administration was kind of ending up in the spot, it seems, all governments end up in sooner or later, which is plumbing leaks," Kirtley said, adding, "The First Amendment suffers."

?("We have no quarrel with the Washington Times or the reporter reporting what he gets. Our issue is with someone in the federal government who broke the law. I'm not aware of any reason why anyone would suggest the Washington Times, or its reporter, conducts itself improperly.") [Caption]
?(? Mike McCurry, White House spokesman) [Photo]
?(The Clinton Administration is investigating a leak to the Washington Times, which published two articles based on classified document obtained by reporter Bill Gertz) [Caption]


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here