Friday, December 30, 2005

It's Not About the Leak

It has been reported that the Justice Department is opening an investigation to determine who told the New York Times about the administration's secret warrantless spying program. According to a White House spokesman (Trent Duffy, pinchhitting for Scott McClellan), the investigation is an important one because "the leaking of classified information is a serious issue."

Exactly how dumb does the administration think we are? We just watched them soft-pedal the Valerie Plame leak for the last couple of years. Bush took that leak of classified information somewhat less than seriously. The New York Daily News reported( ) Bush knew for more than two years that Rove had spoken to the media about Plame. But the president did nothing. Rove still works for the White House, while Plame's career ended when her cover was blown. Although Cheney chief of staff Scooter Libby has been indicted, the White House has not so much as reprimanded anyone involved in the leak.

For some inscrutable reason, right wingers argue that leaking Plame's cover to the press was not all that serious. To recap why it matters, Plame was a NOC (nonofficial cover) CIA agent. In a nutshell, that means she had a fake identity (as a private consultant) that served as her cover while she conducted intelligence work on behalf of the United States. We do not know much about the details of what her work involved (remember, it was all classified before her cover was blown), but it has been reported that her work involved gathering intelligence concerning weapons of mass destruction. Serious stuff.

How anyone decides that leaking an undercover CIA agent's identity for political purposes is no big deal, while leaking the existence of unlawful activity by the White House is a grave problem demanding immediate action is beyond me. But the real point here is not to get distracted. The administration would like nothing better than for attention to shift away from its illegal spying onto who leaked this information. They'd be just as happy if the media started debating which is worse: leaking Plame's identity or leaking the existence of the secret spying program.

Let's not play their game. The Justice Department is investigating the leak? Fine and dandy. We can briefly observe that the administration is hypocritically breathless about the secret spying leak while it brushed off the Plame leak. But the real focus has to stay on the secret spying program itself. Take a page from the administration's playbook and repeat, over and over, why this matters. There is a federal law requiring the president to obtain a warrant when he orders surveillance of Americans. The president did not follow this law. He ordered spying without warrants. His actions violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as well as the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

When the leak investigation story makes it to the Sunday talk shows, Hardball, etc. let's hope our side keeps its eye on the ball. The secret spying story is about the President breaking the law. It's not about who informed the New York Times of that fact.


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