When Washington leaks, it pours

Leaks of policy information have become almost routine recently, with few follow-up investigations.

The lead story in The New York Times last weekend said that two days before resigning, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld submitted a classified memo to the White House admitting that the administration's Iraq strategy was not working. The Pentagon readily confirmed the authenticity of the classified memo.

An earlier lead story in the Times spoke of a classified memo to President Bush from his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, expressing serious doubt about the ability of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to control sectarian violence. Whether the leak was intentional or not, it was intensely embarrassing to President Bush, about to meet with Mr. Maliki in Jordan. The White House could hardly disown the document. The Times published the text.

On television Sunday, Mr. Hadley called the leak "outrageous" and "not authorized." But he would not say if it was being investigated.

Time was when leaks of classified secrets would have set off massive FBI hunts for leakers and leakees. Most presidents have deeply resented leaks from inside the administration, which can often tie their hands at delicate moments. President Reagan famously complained of being "up to my keister in leaks." President Nixon's effort to plug leaks with hired investigators called "plumbers" led him to the Watergate scandal.

But leaks of policy information have become almost routine in recent times. And, unless there are leak investigations that haven't leaked, they are few and far between.

The most extensive leak investigation of recent times is the special prosecutor's long-running probe of the disclosure of the identity of a CIA undercover officer. And that has developed more into an investigation of possible perjury and obstruction of justice than the original act. The only one so far to go to jail is former New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

Occasionally, the administration takes measures to admonish officials about leaks of classified information. CIA officials have been obliged to take polygraph tests and the Justice Department has warned of prosecution under the Espionage Act.

But such warnings are apparently not meant for high-ranking officials such as Hadley and Mr. Rumsfeld. The government systems of classifying information provide different levels of confidentiality, such as "secret" and "top secret." Maybe the time has come to introduce another level – "open secret."

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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