Besieged by leaks of several closely held secrets, the CIA has asked the Justice Department to examine what it regards as the criminal disclosure of a secret program to kill foreign terrorist leaders abroad, The Washington Times has learned.
Two U.S. intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition that they not be named because of the sensitivity of the case, said the leak investigation involved a program that CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told Congress about in June and that surfaced in news reports just a month later.
The vice chairman of the the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence declined to discuss any possible leak investigations but told the Times on Thursday that a growing number of disclosures of highly secret programs, tactics and other information had caused "irreparable damage" to the U.S. intelligence community.
"They foil our attempts to carry out classified missions," Sen. Christopher S. Bond said in an interview. "They tell our intelligence community: We don't have your back; we're stabbing you in the back. Our allies ask us, 'How can we trust you to deal in classified matters in private, when the details are leaked to the press?'"
Mr. Bond, a Republican from Missouri, said he heard this refrain in recent meetings with heads of European, South Asian and Middle Eastern allied intelligence services. "Nobody has told me they won't cooperate, but they are asking the question," he said.
One element of the new leak investigation involves a New York Times story last month that said the secret program employed the security contractor Xe - formerly known as Blackwater. The plan was never put into effect - and Mr. Panetta canceled it as soon as he learned of it, according to the CIA.
But the disclosure has had other consequences: Al Qaeda has placed Xe's chief executive, Eric Prince, on its own version of a most-wanted list, said Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the contractor.
The CIA routinely asks Justice to investigate unauthorized disclosures of classified information, but this one comes at a particularly delicate time for the spy agency. Its own interrogators face criminal investigation by the same department, and its relationship with lawmakers is evolving as a Democratic-controlled Congress has signaled a willingness to rein in some of the agency's activities.
If the Justice Department decides to mount a criminal investigation, it would have several potential subjects to interview, as the number of people who knew about the once closely held program expanded earlier this year. The Wall Street Journal on July 13 was the first to disclose details of the program and attributed the information to former intelligence officials.
The plan was a "special access program" - an activity or plan that is kept from officers with even the highest security clearances. As a result, the number of individuals aware of the program was extremely small at first. The pool grew much larger by the time it reached Congress and was briefed to the full House and Senate intelligence committees and senior staff.
A CIA spokesman, Paul Gimigliano, said "the agency does not, as a general practice, deny or confirm reports of leaks it may bring to the attention of the Department of Justice."
Richard Kolko, a Justice Department spokesman, told The Times, "Every referral to the Department of Justice is taken seriously; however, we do not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation."
The CIA request for a criminal investigation comes after a summer of leaks and other uncomfortable disclosures for the agency. The Obama administration last month released details of harsh interrogation procedures carried out against captured terrorists and terrorist suspects by CIA employees and contractors under the Bush administration - activities that many human rights activists say amounted to torture.
Also last month, over strong objections by Mr. Panetta, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. appointed a special prosecutor to re-evaluate cases against CIA officers who may have exceeded the Bush administration's legal guidelines on interrogations.
Jeffrey Addicott, a former senior legal adviser to the Green Berets and director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio, said the leak of such classified information hurts U.S. national security and undermines CIA morale.
"It has a chilling effect from the highest levels to the lowest levels of the CIA," Mr. Addicott said. "It discourages cooperation from our allies on the war on terror because it strikes at the ...issue of trustworthiness. They dont trust us. We have to remember we are in a state of war. These arent peacetime leaks but wartime leaks that have a profound negative impact on our war effort. This contributes to the enemys propaganda agenda."
However, one intelligence official downplayed the significance of the leak and of the request for a Justice Department investigation.
"These leaks, unlike others in the past, didnt cost the country a viable collection or counterterrorism capability," the official said. "There were different concepts considered and tested over the years, but they always ran into problems.They never proved themselves, so its not a big loss."
The official added, "Leaks of classified information are, unfortunately, fairly common.They can do tremendous damage, and they need to be pursued.The real impact here, though, was not operational - these small efforts never took a single terrorist off the street.But it did make for some sloppy stories about hit squads and another public discussion of congressional oversight."
Because the program was briefed to Congress, it opens the prospect that the FBI could place lawmakers and congressional staffers under polygraph.
The last time the bureau conducted such a major leak investigation involving a member of Congress, it resulted in the reprimand of Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Republican from Alabama, who was accused of divulging to Fox News al Qaeda communications that were intercepted prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
At the time, Mr. Shelby was vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat from Vermont, resigned from that committee in 1986 after leaking a staff report to a reporter on the Iran-Contra affair, under which the U.S. sold weapons to Iran and used the proceeds illegally to fund anti-communist guerrillas in Central America.
It remains to be seen whether the investigation will rise to the level of those incidents or the 2003 probe that followed the disclosure by columnist Robert Novak that Valerie Plame was a CIA officer. That investigation mired the Bush presidency in legal and political challenges and led ultimately to the indictment of I. Lewis Libby, chief of staff to then-Vice President Cheney. Mr. Libby was found guilty of obstructing the FBI's original leak investigation.
"Unlike the Valerie Plame matter, where the cocktail circuit knew she worked for the CIA, these people ... Blackwater, were covert," said Victoria Toensing, a former chief counsel to the Senate intelligence committe. "Every fact that I know points to a violation unlike the Valerie Plame matter. The identifier, the exposer, has to know the relationship is covert."