WASHINGTON — Pity President Bush. He may be the most powerful man on earth, running the most disciplined White House in recent memory, but when it comes to finding the source of the leak that has this town buzzing, he's as helpless as the rest of us, he says.
All he knows, he says, is what we know. Sometime in July two "senior administration officials" called a half-dozen journalists and leaked to them the identity of an undercover CIA officer. One, columnist Robert Novak, ran with the story and made that identity known to the public at large. For a public official to leak this information, it turns out, is a violation of federal law, and now the CIA is angry and the Justice Department is investigating.
The president is reportedly furious over the news. He hates leaks and wants to find out the source, he says, but his hands are tied. Without the reporters revealing who their source was, he's not sure the leaker will ever be found. "This is a large administration," he told reporters last week with a chuckle.
The president raises an interesting point. Clearly there are at least six reporters who know who the leaker is and they're not likely to give up the information. In journalism, that's part of the deal. If a journalist reveals his source, he's violated his contract, and his chances of getting tips in the future shrivel. Like it or not, that's how the game is played here. That's how important (and often unimportant) information gets to the public.
So is the president right, then? Yes and no.
Presidential administrations are, without question, large. But when one takes into account all the issues here, the group involved narrows.
First, the subject matter limits the possible leakers. The Departments of Agriculture and Interior were not involved here. The number of people involved in the administration's day-to-day machinations on politics, Iraq, and intelligence is limited.
Second, while the words "senior administration official" are thrown around this town more than "no comment," they're probably accurate in this case. Considering the celebrity journalists contacted here (Mr. Novak and Andrea Mitchell are two known names), these calls didn't come from an intern.
Third, according to The Washington Post, an administration source said the leaks were an organized effort. They weren't misstatements, but the result of "unsolicited" calls to journalists aimed at undermining an administration critic.
So far the White House reaction has been to have staff voluntarily turn over all the records they had pertaining to the leak. Meanwhile, the press office says it has questioned key administration figures who've denied involvement in the leak. Fine, but it's not enough.
The question isn't whether there was a leak (we already know there was) but rather, who leaked. If nothing turns up in this preliminary search it will mean only one thing. Someone is lying and/or hiding data.
How to find such a person? It turns out, the administration may have an ally in its hunt. The Patriot Act, the anti terrorism law this administration has fought for and defended, could be used. Viet Dinh, a former assistant attorney general and one of the act's architects, says, "The normal investigative tools contained in Title II of the act may well apply to a leak investigation, such as the voice mail subpoena authority or perhaps the electronic trap and trace authority." The question, he says, is whether the facts of the case will prompt its use.
Of course, the law has already been used in several cases that have nothing to do with terrorism - from white-collar crime to blackmail. All of which suggests that even if you don't like the Patriot Act (and many on the right and the left don't) it's hard to argue against its being used here.
This is a test for the Justice Department and this administration as a whole. Over the past decade, as the Clinton scandals swirled in this town, there has been one consistent theme: Denials aren't enough. Accusations demand investigation. If that was true in the case of an Arkansas landdeal gone bad, it is doubly true here, where the stakes are higher - the CIA officer is home, but the network of contacts she established is potentially compromised.
The president has run a tight ship for three years. His staff has been loyal and on message. If leaks really aren't to be tolerated, he has to do more than throw his hands in the air and say, "The press won't tell me." He needs to push the investigation further - no matter where it leads.