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FBI Leak Probe Irks Lawmakers
Many Spurn Polygraph Requests On Issue of NSA's 9/11 Intercept

_____Correction_____
An Aug. 2 article about the FBI investigation of the House and Senate intelligence committees misquoted a statement from Ranit Schmelzer, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). The statement said Daschle had "grave concerns about the constitutional separation of powers issues raised by having one branch of government asking to polygraph employees of another branch."


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By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 2, 2002; Page A01

FBI agents have questioned nearly all 37 members of the Senate and House intelligence committees and have asked many if they would be willing to submit to lie detector tests as part of a broad investigation into leaks of classified information related to the Sept. 11 attacks, according to officials involved in the inquiry.

Most of the lawmakers have told the FBI they would refuse a polygraph, citing the constitutional separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government and the unreliability of the exam, those involved in the inquiry said.

Although the chairmen of the intelligence committees, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), asked the FBI to conduct the inquiry, its unprecedented scale has angered some lawmakers, according to people close to the investigation. The lawmakers are unhappy that the FBI, an agency they oversee, is investigating them.

In addition to committee members, FBI agents have questioned 60 congressional staff members and officials at the CIA, the Defense Department and the National Security Agency. They are trying to find the source of news stories that quoted Arabic communications making vague references to an impending attack on the United States, which were intercepted by the NSA on Sept. 10 but not translated until Sept. 12.

Ranit Schmelzer, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), said Daschle had "grave concerns about the congressional separation of powers issues raised by having one branch of government asking to polygraph employees of another branch." But, she added in a statement, "this matter is between the House and Senate intelligence committees and the Justice Department. The intelligence committees asked the Justice Department to conduct this investigation and it is up to these parties to determine the appropriate guidance" for members regarding the polygraph.

Congressional leaders established a joint intelligence panel this year to review the performances of the CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks and to recommend improvements to the government's intelligence community.

As the panel's hearings began, stories appeared about the NSA intercepts, drawing a heated White House rebuke. Vice President Cheney telephoned Goss and Graham to chastise them for the disclosures, while presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said the information was "alarmingly specific" and could compromise the war on terrorism. Administration officials said the leaks could be a federal crime.

Saying he was "chagrined" to have received the call from Cheney, Goss, along with Graham, wrote Attorney General John D. Ashcroft to request an investigation. The request was highly unusual because it bypassed the normal procedure of having a congressional ethics committee investigate an unwanted disclosure.

The intercepts include two snippets of conversation, one stating "the match is about to begin," and the other saying, "tomorrow is zero hour."

Intelligence officials have said the two messages, even if translated on Sept. 10, would not have provided enough information to prevent the attacks because they were unspecific as to the time or place where an attack would occur. But the disclosure was embarrassing to the NSA, highlighting chronic problems at an agency that for years has been criticized for being able to translate and analyze only a fraction of the millions of conversations and electronic transmissions it intercepts around the world.

The Washington Times first reported the intercepts and the delay in translating them 11 days after the September attacks. Several news organizations published or broadcast similar stories in early June. But it was not until a June 19 CNN report that cited "two congressional sources," and June 20 reports in other major newspapers, including The Washington Post, that Cheney called Goss and Graham.

Experts in the separation of powers said yesterday that the FBI investigation raised serious concerns about whether lawmakers would feel free to aggressively review the performance of intelligence agencies and the FBI.

"Now the FBI can open dossiers on every member and staffer and develop full information on them. It creates a great chilling effect on those who would be critical of the FBI," said Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore law professor and former House deputy general counsel. "The FBI, with their great boots, are tramping around on ground that is privileged and privileged for good reason, to preclude intimidation of members."

The Bush administration has aggressively tried to close down sources of news reporting that reveals information that is potentially embarrassing or, in the administration's view, harmful to national security. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has started an investigation at the Pentagon into the source of a New York Times story last month that laid out one possible plan in a war against Iraq.

During a congressional hearing Wednesday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) questioned Rumsfeld about the level of the administration's concerns about leaks over Iraq policy, telling the defense secretary that unwanted disclosures are "a game that was played when you first came here nearly 30 years ago, and it will probably be played 30 years from now."

"The fact is that there are competing proposals within the administration, and certain people are using or attempting to gain advantage by leaking information . . . and when it is resolved within the administration . . . then I think you'll find the leaks will stop," McCain said.

2002 The Washington Post Company



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