Call the plumbers! We have another leak!

When last heard from, Glenn Reynolds wanted people fired or jailed for leaking classified information. As I tried to explain at the time, that’s a very bad idea, since most classified documents won’t threaten the national security if released, and, if no one ever leaks classified information, those in power will have more capacity to cover up their lies and blunders and we as citizens will have less capacity to know what’s going on.

[Release of genuinely sensitive information about weapons capability, order of battle, vulnerability of targets, and intelligence sources and methods is a different issue entirely. The same sometimes applies to technical information about how to make a nuclear weapon or weaponized anthrax, or either side of the cryptography/cryptanalysis problem.]

I’m delighted to report that Glenn seems to have changed his mind. At least, he’s quite pleased by the publication in the Weekly Standard of what the Standard says are large chunks of a Top Secret document, purporting to show strong ties between the Ba’athist regime in Iraq and al-Qaeda.

I’m with Glenn: the more of this we get to read, the better. Let’s have the whole document, though, not just the Standard’s version of it. (And while we’re at it, can we see the censored 28 pages from the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report 9-11: the pages that lay out the role of the Saudi monarchy?)

However, as Graham Greene pointed out in Our Man in Havana, the fact that a document is stamped “Top Secret” doesn’t mean that any of the information it contains is true. Matthew Yglesias, considering the source — Doug Feith — offers reason to doubt that the “report” adds much to our knowledge. He’d rather have his intelligence processed by intelligence agencies than by advocates.

There’s every reason — starting with the lack of outcry from the Adminstration, ever vigilant, under the cover of “security,” against the release of anything embarrassing — to think that this memo was written to be leaked, and that the information inside is just as insincere as the “Top Secret” stamp on the front.

One advantage of leaking over open publication is deniability. Another is unaccountability: this way, if challenged on his assertions, Feith can just say “That material is classified and I can’t discuss it.”

Update Hmph. The “official leak” theory just took a big hit. DoD put out a press release denying that the docment said what the Standard, and the warbloggers quoting the Standard, said it said. (The Standard’s headline was “Case Closed.”)

Here’s the full text of the DoD release:

News reports that the Defense Department recently confirmed new information with respect to contacts between al-Qaida and Iraq in a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee are inaccurate.

A letter was sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee on October 27, 2003 from Douglas J. Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, in response to follow-up questions from his July 10 testimony. One of the questions posed by the committee asked the Department to provide the reports from the Intelligence Community to which he referred in his testimony before the Committee. These reports dealt with the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida.

The letter to the committee included a classified annex containing a list and description of the requested reports, so that the Committee could obtain the reports from the relevant members of the Intelligence Community.

The items listed in the classified annex were either raw reports or products of the CIA, the NSA, or, in one case, the DIA. The provision of the classified annex to the Intelligence Committee was cleared by other agencies and done with the permission of the Intelligence Community. The selection of the documents was made by DOD to respond to the Committee’s question. The classified annex was not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaida, and it drew no conclusions.

Individuals who leak or purport to leak classified information are doing serious harm to national security; such activity is deplorable and may be illegal.

Now a ritual denunciation of leaking can accompany an official leak, and it’s worth noting that the release, at least, doesn’t threaten an investigation, and Google News doesn’t turn up any such threat being made from the White House. (That doesn’t, of course, mean that an investigation won’t happen.)

But the DoD document goes well beyond that. It actively tries to rain on the Standard’s parade. The Standard had pushed the Feith memo as embodying new information and reaching strong conclusions:

The memo, dated October 27, 2003, was sent from Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith (search) to Senators Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller, the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. It was written in response to a request from the committee as part of its investigation into prewar intelligence claims made by the administration. Intelligence reporting included in the 16-page memo comes from a variety of domestic and foreign agencies, including the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency. Much of the evidence is detailed, conclusive, and corroborated by multiple sources. Some of it is new information obtained in custodial interviews with high-level Al Qaeda terrorists and Iraqi officials, and some of it is more than a decade old. The picture that emerges is one of a history of collaboration between two of America’s most determined and dangerous enemies.

According to the memo, which lays out the intelligence in 50 numbered points, Iraq-Al Qaeda contacts began in 1990 and continued through mid-March 2003, days before the Iraq War began. Most of the numbered passages contain straight, fact-based intelligence reporting, which in some cases includes an evaluation of the credibility of the source. This reporting is often followed by commentary and analysis.

But the DoD release denies all of this. It describes the “memo” as consisting merely of a list of reports, and as not reaching any conclusions.

So it seems unlikely that this was authorized at the top of DoD.

It’s possible that Feith, or someone working for him, leaked the document, with or without clearance from the White House political operation, or that Rove’s people did it, with or without Feith’s acquiescence. But it’s also possible that the source was someone on the Intelligence Committee or its staff, presumably someone with an interest in making the case for war look stronger.

Second update: Spencer Ackerman in Washington Monthly marshals the evidence against any significan Iraqi role in terrorism directed against the U.S. I’m not familiar with Ackerman’s work, but pass it along for what it may be worth.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: