In rejecting the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate campaign fund-raising, Attorney General Janet Reno told Congress that Chinese involvement was "a mere allegation." She did not volunteer in public what the allegation was based on - communications among the Chinese Embassy, Beijing, and fund-raisers, monitored and decoded by the National Security Agency.
To do so might have violated one of the most sacred precepts of the intelligence community - the protection of "sources and methods." The phrase "sources and methods," referring to everything from spies to satellites, derives from the original National Security Act of 1947 that created the Central Intelligence Agency.
Over the years the CIA and FBI have gone to great lengths to protect "sources and methods." One of the most dramatic episodes was "G-man" J. Edgar Hoover's withholding from the Warren Commission hearings of an important piece of information bearing on the Kennedy assassination.
After the assassination in November 1963, Hoover sent the brothers Morris and Jack Childs, American Communist leaders secretly on the FBI payroll, to Havana to interview Fidel Castro. Castro told them of having been advised by the Cuban consulate in Mexico City weeks before the assassination that Lee Harvey Oswald had stormed in and said, "I'm going to kill Kennedy." Hoover finally told of this in a top-secret letter to committee counsel J. Lee Rankin after the hearings had concluded. Only after the death of the Childs brothers was the letter declassified, revealing the FBI's secret source in the Communist Party.
In 1975, CIA director William Colby fought strenuously, and unsuccessfully, to get the House Intelligence Committee to delete four words from a report on the agency's failure to predict the surprise launching of the Yom Kippur war in 1973.
The words were, "... and increased communications security." They referred to the fact that Egyptian tanks in the Sinai had suddenly started observing radio silence, a possible clue to pending attack. But to disclose that American intelligence could hear short-range tactical radio could have pointed to the secret monitoring post in Jordan, arranged with King Hussein, who was on the CIA payroll.
SOMETIMES a president violates the secrecy of "sources and methods" for reasons of his own. In 1983, after the shooting down of the Korean airliner, President Reagan had a tape of Soviet ground-to-air communications played for the United Nations Security Council to dramatize the coldly calculated nature of the attack. That lifted the veil on a supersecret American reconnaissance unit in northern Japan, monitoring Soviet communications.
Then in 1986, in justifying the retaliatory bombing of Libya for the bomb attack on GIs in Berlin, Reagan disclosed the interception and decoding of communications between Col. Muammar Qaddafi's government and the Libyan Embassy in East Berlin.
Only the president has the authority to break the "sources and methods" rules that other officials must enforce as best they can. So nobody will say how the FBI learned of Chinese plans to pour money into the '96 election. Chances are, though, that the Chinese have figured it out by now.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.