Leaks of national security information on Capitol Hill have their way of annoying those at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But when leaks can compromise intelligence-gathering methods and sources, the game in Washington becomes serious indeed. That's especially true in protecting efforts to root out an elusive enemy, bent on terrorism. (See story, page 1.)
Seventeen senators who were investigating the Sept. 11 attacks have been asked by the FBI to turn over documents related to leaks of two terrorist messages intercepted by the National Security Agency. The chairmen of both the Senate and House intelligence committees requested the probe in June after the vice president took the panel to task for the leak.
That the FBI is investigating some of the very senators who oversee the FBI is odd enough. If it finds a leaker, the Senate itself would be responsible for taking action. Otherwise, the executive branch would be stepping on the toes of Congress.
Whoever leaked the messages may have sought to embarrass the president the intercepted messages hint at the pending attack before Sept. 11. That someone would put political gain before national security does merit the FBI probe.
At the same time, Congress has an interest in reforming the executive branch, especially the intelligence services, to be more alert to terrorist threats. It could have criticized the administration in general terms without revealing the actual messages.
In the probe of 9/11, and in the FBI's probe of senators, balance and discretion are needed to avoid missteps in security and maintain the separation of powers between the White House and Congress.