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Loose Lips?

This is a partial transcript from "The O'Reilly Factor," February 3, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

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TONY SNOW, GUEST HOST: In our top story, the fallout over leaks of classified information about the war on terror. CIA Director Porter Goss went before a Senate committee and said leaks have caused severe damage to his agency's operations, and he wants the journalists who reported the leaks to be questioned by a grand jury.

Here's what he's talking about. In November, The Washington Post's Dana Priest broke a story about secret overseas CIA prisons for terror suspects. Since that report, several European countries have launched investigations into the claims. Their concern is that they're going to be less cooperative fighting the war on terror because of the leak.

Then in December, as you know, two New York Times reporters outed the National Security Agency's secret electronic surveillance program. We've since seen major opposition to that effort.

Joining us now, Retired Air Force Colonel P.J. Crowley, Director of National Defense and Homeland Security at the Progressive Think Tank, the Center for American Progress.

All right, Mr. Crowley, let's talk a little bit -- I'm primarily interested in The New York Times time case. Why on earth do you think it is justifiable for a newspaper to decide whether or not it's proper to release classified information?

P.J. CROWLEY, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Well, I think let's flip that around, first of all, and say that there are multiple interests here. And certainly what sets the United States apart from some of the other countries around the world that we're trying to change is the fact that we have a vibrant democracy, a successful democracy. And part of that is that we have a vibrant, free fourth estate, you know, that is reporting, as a watchdog on the activities of government.

So I think as a function, The Washington Post, New York Times, you know, did what we asked them to do. And it's part of the tension that the founding fathers, you know, put it in the Constitution for the government.

SNOW: Well .

CROWLEY: And you'll have a free press.

SNOW: Of course, you also have the first obligation of the commander in chief is to defend the security of the nation. And throughout American history, there have been constraints on the press when it came to possibly putting in danger or jeopardy the lives of American citizens.

Porter Goss seems to believe that the release of information about the surveillance program, in fact, has done major harm to efforts to go ahead and to try to track down al Qaeda members and others.

That being the case, are you not concerned that in "exercising its vibrant right to the First Amendment" that The New York Times may, in fact, have placed in jeopardy people's lives? And if so, what right does it have to do that?

CROWLEY: Well, and I'll say that there are potentially two laws that have been broken here. You know, first of all, there is a legitimate question as to the legality of what the NSA is doing.

It's not to say that on balance, should we be listening in to al Qaeda? Of course the answer is yes. But as a rule, as a nation that operates under the rule of law, if we need to change the legal foundation to do things, we should do that.

At the same time, I completely agree with you, that whatever government employee gave the information to The New York Times in the NSA case or the secrets prisons in The Washington, you know, Post case, they have ostensibly broken the law as well, which - so you know, the answer is we have multiple interests here.

I think that certainly where laws are potentially broken, the media, you know, can report this. And I think The New York Times acted responsibly. They held up the story for a year, made sure that how they reported it, to the extent possible, did not jeopardize lives.

But at the same time, if I'm Porter Goss, yes, I want to aggressively investigate this. And if I can identify, as is the case in the Valerie Plame case, if you can identify the people that are responsible, they should be prosecuted.

SNOW: I want to get to the Valerie Plame case in a minute. But first, the Espionage Act, passed in 1917, and it has since been sort of -- Congress has taken a couple of whacks it at it. It makes it illegal to publish classified information. And that is information that has been deemed by the administration by the president and his duly authorized deputies as being secret information that shouldn't be shared.

It seems pretty clear based on that that The New York Times itself may have broken federal law. What about the idea of also bringing The New York Times under the aegis of the Espionage Act?

CROWLEY: You know, it's a tough call, Tony. And there are legitimate interests here. And I think the media, when they are in possession of classified information, has an obligation to come to the government, inform them of it. And then they work out what can be reasonably reported and what literally does put lives at stake.

And I think over the years, you know, the media have done a reasonable job of doing this. As.

SNOW: What's interesting is in this particular case, The New York Times does not seem so have been able to provide any reason why all of a sudden, it decided to publish this.

The administration had over, as you pointed out, a 12-month period said don't do it. It's bad. It's bad for security. It publishes it. And in subsequent attempts to try to explain it, Bill Keller, the executive editor, and others have come up with no reasons.

CROWLEY: Well, sure. And I've worked for the government for 26 years and - in times where clearly, I would have preferred that the media not report certain things. In most cases, it's not necessarily the information reported. It's the sources and methods behind the operation, you know, that we value as a country in terms of being able to do the intelligence work that we need to do.

I do think - you know, but again, there's a balance of interests here. And both the secret prisons case and also the NSA case, there are legitimate questions about the legality of the things that are being done. And so.

SNOW: Let me put it.

CROWLEY: And so I just think that, you know, if you ask me, do I want a less vibrant press in return for convenience or pure security for the government, I think on balance, what makes us.

SNOW: OK.

CROWLEY: .a special country is that you have to allow the press to do what they do on occasion to make mistakes.

SNOW: Very quickly, you got this Valerie Plame case. Now it turns out that Peter Fitzgerald doesn't -- can't even identify any harm. She wasn't a covert agent. She wasn't compromised.

As a result, what you're doing is possibly sending a senior administration official off about a faulty memory over something that wasn't a crime.

Meanwhile, you got Porter Goss saying that there's serious damage here. Don't you think this deserves at least an opportunity to try to figure out what happened?

CROWLEY: Well, I'll take exception with you. The fact that we had a covert operative that was exposed, it's possible.

SNOW: She wasn't covert anymore. Even her husband says she wasn't covert for six years.

CROWLEY: I think there was harm done. There was an asset that we no longer have. That said, I do not think that the media should have a shield law.

SNOW: OK.

CROWLEY: You know, as corporate citizens and as private citizens, once you know that there's been damage done, they have an obligation to come forward just like anybody else.

SNOW: All right, P.J. Crowley, thanks.

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