- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

The Justice Department has begun an investigation into an illegal leak that allowed the New York Times to disclose that the National Security Agency was intercepting al Qaeda conversations.

“The leaking of classified information is a serious issue,” White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy told reporters near the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.

“The fact is that al Qaeda’s playbook is not printed on Page One. And when America’s is, it has serious ramifications. You don’t need to be Sun Tzu to understand that,” Mr. Duffy said, referring to the legendary ancient Chinese military strategist.

A spokeswoman for the New York Times declined to comment on the probe, aimed at identifying who leaked the story about the NSA eavesdropping on Americans who are suspected of communicating with al Qaeda operatives overseas.

Mr. Duffy said the probe was not ordered by the White House, although President Bush speculated earlier that the Justice Department would initiate an investigation on its own. The president has made no secret of his displeasure over the leak.

“My personal opinion is it was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war,” Mr. Bush told reporters earlier this month. “The fact that we’re discussing this program is helping the enemy.

“You’ve got to understand,” the president added. “There is still an enemy that would like to strike the United States of America, and they’re very dangerous. And the discussion about how we try to find them will enable them to adjust.”

Such concerns initially persuaded the New York Times to withhold publication of the story for a year. But two weeks ago, the newspaper published it on the front page, angering administration officials who had been pleading for secrecy.

The leak of the NSA program has attracted far less attention in the press than the 2003 leak of CIA analyst Valerie Plame’s identity.

Although special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has not charged anyone with the Plame leak, he did charge I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, with lying to investigators. The probe also has ended or damaged the careers of various journalists.

Democrats have not denounced the NSA leak, but they have criticized Mr. Bush for signing a secret order to begin the eavesdropping program shortly after the September 11 attacks in which terrorists killed about 3,000.

Democrats plan to further criticize the administration during congressional hearings next year, and some are planning to highlight the issue in the 2006 congressional elections.

A recent poll by Rasmussen Reports showed that 64 percent of Americans support the NSA program, while only 23 percent oppose it.

While at his ranch yesterday, Mr. Bush signed various pieces of legislation, including a five-week extension of the USA Patriot Act. He originally had called for a permanent extension of the law, which would have expired tonight , and had threatened to veto a temporary extension.

But the president ultimately contented himself with buying some time with a temporary extension while pushing Democrats for one that is permanent.

“He’s not satisfied with a one-month extension,” Mr. Duffy said. “But we’ve got to get that in place, and we’ve got to work with them to get it permanently re-extended.”

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