WASHINGTON – The drip, drip, drip of government leaks continued to plunge the Bush administration into defense mode in 2006, dominating headlines and prompting calls from supporters to prosecute not only leakers but also journalists.
In September, a classified intelligence report leaked to The New York Times concluded that the war in Iraq had increased the threat of terrorist violence there and the war had become a recruiting tool. While the White House played down the news reports, Democrats seized upon it as further proof that the war policy was failing.
In early December, a letter written from outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to the White House just before his November resignation indicated that he was concerned about the administration's strategy in Iraq. The memo also was leaked to The New York Times.
In November, the "Hadley memo" won its share of attention. The classified document written by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley to the White House expressed concern about the ability of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to control the sectarian violence in his country.
The memo, which was leaked to The New York Times and published ahead of Bush's Nov. 30 meeting with al-Maliki in Jordan, generated a lot of buzz about whether the White House actually continues to support al-Maliki's government.
The meeting in Jordan went on as scheduled despite some awkward backtracking and schedule changes. Asked at a Dec. 20 press conference about the sieve in his administration, President Bush readily admitted it is an "ongoing problem."
"We've had a lot of leaks … I don't know where they're from, and therefore, I'm not going to speculate. It turns out you never can find the leaker," Bush said with frustration.
Bush later added that he didn't know if the leak was being investigated.
"You know, there may be an ongoing investigation of this, I just don't know," Bush said. "But I do think that at some point in time it would be helpful if we can find somebody inside our government who is leaking materials — clearly against the law — that they be held to account. Perhaps the best way to make sure people don't leak classified documents is that there be a consequence for doing so."
The Hadley analysis represented just one leaked memo in a year full of unhelpful reports detailing the Bush administration's tactics and troubles.
In January, Bush was forced to go on a public relations tour to defend the National Security Agency's terrorist surveillance program. Since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the warrantless wiretapping of individuals in the United States speaking to international terror suspects had been used by the NSA without any notice.
Editors at The New York Times, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the coverage in 2006, said they sat on the story for nearly a year before reporting it. The timing of the release managed to steal prominence from the Iraqi elections and reauthorization of the Patriot Act in late December 2005.
Bush said the anti-terror tool had saved lives and he condemned the media for harming national security by revealing details of the program. But Congress continued to discuss it, and the new Democratic majority plans to look at ways to rein in the program.
In June, both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times published a story based on a leak regarding the government's pressure on SWIFT — a Brussels-based clearinghouse that exchanges transactional information between international banks — to give up information on private bank transactions as part of U.S. global anti-terror efforts.
The stories drew immediate fire from the White House and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y, then-chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who called the leak and subsequent publishing of the program's details treasonous.
"The activities of The New York Times are shameful and irresponsible, and put Americans all over the world at risk by identifying sources and methods and warning our adversaries of our capabilities and techniques," King wrote, accusing the newspaper of violating the 1917 Espionage Act and a Cold War-era law restricting the publication of communications intelligence secrets.
Any investigations that might be ongoing into this, the NSA story or any other leaks have not yet yielded any penalties against government officials or journalists. Political observers say the chances for that happening, particularly at the congressional level, are unlikely, now that both the House and Senate are under Democratic control.
Some say such leaks are an indication that the administration has been too secretive and controlling and that leaks are the only way for dissenters to get a message out publicly.
"There are different players here. There are people at the NSA program, and intelligence people who have some values and professionalism," and find this is the only way to get questionable policies aired, said Ellis Henican, political commentator for Newsday. "[Leaking] is a way to put information out without fingerprints."
Dave Johnson, a fellow at the Commonweal Institute in California and author at the SeeingTheForest Web log, said leaking would be less if secrecy was less.
"[The Bush administration] classifies things politically; they aren't as transparent as a government should be. We need to be able to trust our government," he said. "Bush has violated the compact between the government and the democracy."
But John Gizzi, political editor of the conservative Human Events magazine, said such leaking is not new and is typical for any administration.
"This happens in all administrations and you are never going to discourage the person who thinks that he or she can violate their oath in the name of what they consider martyrdom — you'll always have wanna-be martyrs," he said.
Still others insist leaking, particularly of classified information, is just plain dangerous.
"It's just bad for the country," said James Carafano, national security expert at the Heritage Foundation. "There are plenty of mechanisms for people to uncover others who are using secrecy to lie or conceal mistakes. If people have a problem with [the status quo], then maybe you can look at ways to strengthen things like whistleblower laws."
Gizzi said Bush's seemingly improvised comments on Dec. 20 about needing a "consequence" for leaking documents, might indicate that behind-the-scenes efforts continue at the administration level to squelch the leaking.
"The president could be sending out a clue, that the Justice Department is going to do exactly that — that you go to jail if you are a leaker," he said.
Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania said Bush would be on the right track.
"I don't think there will be any lessening of the leaks and the sensationalism of these stories unless someone gets prosecuted for it," he said.
Carafano said the administration may try to be more transparent in 2007 or more savvy about how future leaks — and how they occur — might play out in the press.
"Anytime you do anything in terms of forming public policy your second thought should be when it appears on the front page of The New York Times," he said, adding, "We do have to be cautious about over-classifying everything under the sun. Keeping secrets to a minimum is a good thing, I think."