- The Washington Times - Friday, June 21, 2002


The chairmen of a joint congressional committee investigating pre-September 11 intelligence failures said yesterday they had asked the attorney general to investigate whether the panel leaked classified information.

"We will cooperate with the FBI in any way possible," while the Justice Department and the FBI investigate if or how such leaks occurred, said Rep. Porter J. Goss, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence.

Vice President Richard B. Cheney had complained to the two chairmen earlier yesterday about leaks that he believed led to the disclosure of the National Security Agency's Sept. 10 discovery of at least two messages in Arabic. The messages suggested a major event was to take place the next day.

At President Bush's direction, Mr. Cheney called Mr. Goss and Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, "to express the president's concerns about this inappropriate disclosure," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Mr. Fleischer called the disclosure of the language of the messages "alarmingly specific."

Mr. Goss said the Justice Department investigation was necessary because committee members are entrusted to keep classified information secret, and undercover operatives or U.S. officials could be endangered by such leaks.

"We've got people out in harm's way who are conducting a lot of serious business," Mr. Goss said.

The Sept. 10 messages were not translated until Sept. 12. Intelligence agencies aren't sure if it they were warnings of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, an intelligence source said Wednesday.

Even if they were, they provided no information on which authorities could have acted, the intelligence source said. The mere mention of a time was insufficient to provide clues of what was to come, the source said.

The messages, believed to be recorded in two separate telephone conversations, contained the phrases, "Tomorrow is zero hour," and "The match is about to begin," the intelligence source said.

Mr. Fleischer called the information that the CIA, FBI and NSA were providing to the committee "extraordinarily sensitive."

"The selective, inappropriate leaking of snippets of information risks undermining national security, and it risks undermining the promises made to protect this sensitive information," the White House spokesman said.

Mr. Fleischer said "we do not know who did it," but Mr. Cheney's phone call seemed to point a finger at the committees.

Concern about leaks has been a key reason the White House has opposed setting up an independent commission to investigate the attacks. The commission has been sought by some lawmakers and relatives of the victims.

Mr. Bush has said the intelligence panels were better positioned to avoid leaks. They "understand the obligations of upholding our secrets and our sources and methods of collecting intelligence," he said last month.

But Mr. Bush has clashed with Congress before over leaks. On Oct. 5, he issued a memo limiting sensitive congressional briefings to the top leaders of the House and Senate and their intelligence committees.

He dropped the restrictions a week later after getting assurances from Mr. Graham and Mr. Goss that they would rein in their members.

Mr. Fleischer did not address questions from reporters about the NSA's information, but he said a 1998 leak that American intelligence agencies were eavesdropping on Osama bin Laden's satellite phone conversations led bin Laden to stop using that phone.

"We are in the middle of a war, and one of the ways to prevent attacks on the United States and to win the war is to be able to obtain information from our enemies," Mr. Fleischer said.

If the enemy learns of U.S. capabilities, "they're going to change their methods."

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