Investigating the investigators

Not for the first time and undoubtedly not for the last, the administration is engaged in a tussle with a congressional committee over control of national security information.

The joint Senate-House Intelligence Committee, criticized by Vice President Cheney for releasing information from electronic intercepts, is now itself undergoing an FBI investigation.

At issue are reports last week quoting from Arabic conversations overheard by the National Security Agency on Sept. 10 with phrases like "The match is about to begin" and "Tomorrow is the zero hour."

It looked like an intelligence failure, and the information in the story was attributed to congressional sources. Actually, there were stories as long ago as Sept. 22, but then attributed to administration sources, telling of intercepted conversations on Sept. 10 among Osama bin Laden's lieutenants pointing to an imminent attack. The leak seemed then intended to link the Sept. 11 assault to the Al Qaeda organization.

There have long been disputes over whether officials overclassify security information for their own reasons. But the executive branch has always maintained sole authority over classified information, sharing it with Congress on its promise of maintaining confidentiality. This was widely disregarded during the post-Watergate investigations of the intelligence community in the mid-1970s. Covert operations from Chile to Angola, from Italy to Iraq, were exposed by congressional whistle-blowers with access to the documents.

The House Intelligence Committee asserted a co-equal congressional right to declassify security information. CIA director William Colby said that would make covert operations impossible.

President Ford's threat to withdraw all classified documents from the congressional committees led to an Oval Office showdown in which Senate Chairman Frank Church and House Chairman Otis Pike finally agreed to accept presidential authority over classified information.

That settled the matter of official disclosure, but not the matter of leaks.

Wherever there was a congressional investigation – the Kennedy plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, President Reagan's deal to trade missiles for hostages with Iran – one could expect substantial leaks.

As far as is known, the FBI has never succeeded in pinpointing a congressional source on Capitol Hill, but it's still trying.

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

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