WASHINGTON – The Bush administration hates leakers, but a high-profile congressional committee may have one among its members or staff.
Under pressure from the White House, leaders of a joint House and Senate panel set up to look into intelligence failures before Sept. 11 are asking the FBI to look into their own committee.
For three weeks, the panel was briefed in secret, and was told about telephone conversations intercepted by the National Security Agency on Sept. 10 that mentioned a major event the next day. The communications, in Arabic, were not translated until Sept. 12.
This past Wednesday, the story, including quotations from the conversations, broke wide in the news media.
Fox News had reported a week earlier that the NSA had had clues the day before the attack, but didn't decipher them. It did not report the exact words until a week later, when they appeared elsewhere.
Asked if members felt it is appropriate for the Department of Justice to investigate the matter, House Majority Leader Dick Armey said, "I think it may be a good example for us to not to comment on that."
Added Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence: "The leak is not necessarily from the legislative branch. ... It could [have been] from the executive branch earlier on."
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 came from, we want to eliminate leaks because they sometimes can be dangerous and give the public a distorted view of one piece of information."
The White House, however, thinks it knows the source. So, Vice President Dick Cheney stepped into the morass Thursday and called Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, to say President Bush was concerned that the leaks could damage national security.
"The vice president was not a happy man," Graham said.
The major concern of the White House is that revealing such "alarmingly specific" information could tell adversaries which spying sources and methods the United States employs.
"If our enemies ... find out that something they say with specificity is known by our government, they are going to change their methods," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Thursday.
Now that the committee has agreed to cooperate, it is also in the process of re-organizing its schedule.
Hearings that were supposed to have been opened to the public starting next week are on hold until after July 4. They may never be public at all.
Concern about possible 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.
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 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 Graham and House Intelligence Committee chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., that they would rein in their members.
The committees said the staff is inundated with information from intelligence agencies, requiring extensive work before there are further hearings.
In addition, the committees are having discussions with the Justice Department regarding possibly declassifying information about Zacarias Moussaoui, who faces trial as an alleged conspirator in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The committees want some information about Moussaoui to be available for future hearings.
The Justice Department is weighing whether declassifying the information will jeopardize its criminal case. The committees also are having discussions with various intelligence agencies about declassifying information.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.