WASHINGTON – Leaks springing from the joint House-Senate intelligence panel may have been disseminated to create the appearance that Congress does not know what it's doing in probing pre-Sept. 11 intelligence efforts.
The White House effectively directed attention away from congressional criticism of intelligence failures prior to Sept. 11 when it announced earlier this month that it was creating a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.
The widely-hailed proposal for a 170,000-person, $37 billion department aims to enable intelligence agents to "connect the dots" from various intelligence analyses and other counter-terrorism straws being gathered by the CIA, FBI and beyond.
But the move has also taken pressure off different agencies that had been lobbing accusations of security failures by the other side. While the FBI and CIA traded barbs for weeks over who had information about would-be terrorists training at U.S. flight schools, the National Security Agency was getting off scot-free.
Now, the National Security Agency is being accused of having intercepts of telephone conversations that revealed it got news of the big day one day before it happened, but didn't bother to translate until the day after Sept. 11.
By releasing the NSA's failure, the pressure is off the CIA and FBI for a while, a goal that perhaps someone in the intelligence committee, with which the CIA and FBI work closely, was trying to accomplish.
But the leak story may also have been designed to bring attention back to the Bush administration's failings, even by taking a roundabout way to do it.
Already, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the second-ranked Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence has suggested that perhaps the leaks didn't come from Congress at all.
"The leak is not necessarily from the legislative branch. ... It could [have been] from the executive branch earlier on. I think that when there are leaks, we have to stop them and it's appropriate to do so by investigating them. But again, it's not just the legislative branch."
Asked later whether she had any reason to believe that the executive branch may have leaked such information, Pelosi responded, "All I'm saying is we don't know where leaks come from, we want to eliminate leaks because they sometimes can be dangerous and give the public a distorted view of one piece of information."
But Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., fired a shot back across the bow Friday when he slammed intelligence panel heads for allowing the leaks to get out, and in the process further aided the administration's efforts.
"The National Security Agency has 32,000 employees. They've kept this information classified for more than nine months. Congress couldn't keep it a secret for more than a few hours," Pitts said. "If Congress expects to continue as a co-equal branch of government as the founders intended, than it has to prove that it is trustworthy and up to the task. This information is now floating around completely out of context, and it cannot be clarified without committing further breaches of secrecy."
Several partisan agenda items could be aided by such broad accusations.
For one, some are complaining that the heads of the joint House-Senate panel are not partisan enough. Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., a former CIA officer, has irked some Republicans who say he is too willing to let Bush look bad and not eager enough to focus on Clinton administration failures.
Some Democrats think Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., is not pressing hard enough for evidence of Bush administration screw-ups and not digging in to protect the Clinton administration.
By contrast, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., ranking member on the Senate intelligence committee, and Pelosi, his Democratic counterpart in the House, are both considered major partisans. Shelby was a bitter critic of the Clinton administration, and has repeatedly called for the resignation of CIA Director George Tenet, a Clinton appointee.
Leaking information from the legislative committee also helps increase momentum for an independent commission, pushed by Democrats, to investigate intelligence failures. The administration opposes such a plan, and said the Select Intelligence Committee has the capacity to conduct the review. However, if the committee can't be trusted to prevent the leaks, then an independent commission may be the next best option. Of course, the administration argues that adding another bureaucratic layer only increases the opportunity for more leaks.
The Bush administration has found an unlikely supporter for that argument, Rep. David Obey, D-Mich., perhaps the most vocal critic of the White House since the Bush team moved in.
Obey asked FBI Director Robert Mueller Friday during the FBI appropriations hearing, "The more agencies handle it, the more committees looking at it, the more potential for leaks, isn't that true?"
Mueller replied, "Yes."