Leaks, and how to plug them, have become a central issue as Congress sorts out possible reforms in the wake of the Iran-contra affair. Many lawmakers were offended by the presumption of Lt. Col. Oliver North and Rear Adm. John Poindexter that Congress cannot be trusted to keep a secret. Colonel North and Admiral Poindexter kept their dealings with Iran secret from Congress, they testified, because they feared that once Congress was officially informed of the initiative, the initiative would be made public.
North charged that Congress was capable of ``incredible leaks.'' He cited the leak of information to a reporter that the Central Intelligence Agency had mined Nicaragua's harbors. ``These kinds of [leaks] are devastating,'' he testified. ``They are devastating to the national security of the United States.''
North's charges found a certain resonance among the general public. One telegram, addressed to North, asserted that ``Congress is as leaky as a 200-year-old water pipe.''
Lawmakers are quick to insist that most leaks, intended or not, come from the executive. The law requires that the administration keep members of both the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence apprised of ongoing covert activities. ``There are a number of ongoing covert initiatives, some of them more complex [than the Iran-contra initiative], and no one has said anything about them,'' says Sen. Paul Trible (R) of Virginia. Agrees Rep. Edward Jenkins (D) of Georgia: ``Sometimes the ones that leak are the ones we aren't told about.''
Lawmakers are particularly miffed that North and others felt free to confide in the Iranians, who were part of the scheme, but not the Congress. ``Imagine trusting a secret with the Ayatollah before trusting your own Congress,'' says Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York.
But, even among themselves, lawmakers disagree over Congress's trustworthiness. A number of them argue that too many members of Congress are informed about covert activities. A debate now under way focuses on whether Congress ought to reduce the number of lawmakers who have access to classified information.
``We don't have the information, the White House does. So it is incumbent on us to prove that we can be trusted,'' says Rep. Dick Cheney (R) of Wyoming, a member of the House Iran-contra committee.
Some lawmakers argue that Congress has not proved it can be trusted. For example, both the chairman and the vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during the last Congress are under fire for leaking classified or confidential information. The former vice-chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, disclosed yesterday that he had resigned from the committee after he leaked to an NBC News reporter the contents of a draft of a committee staff report on the Iran-contra affair.
Meanwhile, the former Intelligence Committee chairman, Sen. David Durenberger, is under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee for publicly stating that the US had paid an Israeli official to spy on Israel.
Can the Congress be trusted? ``No. Emphatically no,'' says Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah. Such assertions, however, raise the hackles of other members, like Rep. Jack Brooks (D) of Texas. ``Hatch can speak for himself,'' Representative Brooks fumes.
Says Rep. Dante Fascell (D) of Florida. ``Well, I don't trust the White House. So there. Where are we?''
Congress and the White House seem to be taking steps to rebuild the trust badly frayed by the affair. Sens. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma and William Cohen (R) of Maine, respectively the chairman and vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, met privately last week with senior White House officials to discuss changes that might be made in the relationship between Congress, the White House, and the intelligence community.
Later, national-security adviser Frank Carlucci said that the White House would soon issue a directive tightening the regulations by which the White House formulates covert initiatives.
``Changes have already occurred with the appointment of Howard Baker Jr. as chief of staff, Frank Carlucci as national-security adviser, and William Webster as CIA director,'' says Senator Cohen. ``And the President has stated publicly that he would not undertake a covert activity unless we stood behind them.'' That is not enough for many mmbers of Congress, a number of whom are certain to propose a raft of legislative remedies. For example, one proposal would require the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of the start of a covert activity. Currently, the law only requires ``timely'' notification of Congress.
Other likely proposals would replace the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence with a single committee comprised of key leaders from both houses of Congress. That panel would be apprised of all intelligence activities.
The consensus behind such efforts, however, is questionable. The Iran-contra committee will include a list of recommended changes in its final report. But those, says Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, chairman of the Senate's Iran-contra committee, would probably involve changes in the process by which intelligence policies are formulated and Congress is notified, and would not require new legislation.