The etiquette and morality of leaking is not always easy to understand. For journalists, almost all leaks are inherently good. For politicians, as the White House is now demonstrating, many leaks are excellent while others are very bad — and the crucial question is usually whether the revealed facts are flattering or embarrassing.

Distinguishing good leaks from bad is especially relevant today, when officials who disclose the wrong information to the wrong people at the wrong time may risk federal prosecution.

The CIA is zealously pursuing staffers who may have disclosed nasty secrets to the press about the secret prisons it has been operating abroad. The agency has dismissed a longtime employee because of allegedly unauthorized discussions with Washington reporters, including Dana Priest of the Washington Post, who won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the secret-prison story. The Justice Department is preparing to subpoena reporters, seeking to force them to expose their leaky sources. Leading Republicans on Capitol Hill have urged that anyone who discloses or publishes classified information should be hauled before a grand jury.

And certain figures in the media have amplified those threats, notably including William Bennett, the virtue guru and legendary gambler. Bennett thinks reporters like Priest and James Risen, the New York Times correspondent who broke the story of warrant-less wiretapping by the National Security Agency, should get prison sentences, not Pulitzer Prizes.

Despite all those thunderous denunciations, however, determining which leaks are bad and which are good can be a murky process.

Is it always bad to leak sensitive classified information to a reporter for the Washington Post? Not if the reporter’s name is Bob Woodward and he is writing a laudatory book with a thrilling title like “Bush at War.” As Woodward researched his 2002 bestseller, top officials told him about covert operations, secret sources and methods, and relationships with foreign intelligence services — all with the blessing of President Bush. After the publication of “Bush at War,” the president instructed officials to continue cooperating for Woodward’s next epic.

Is it always bad to leak sensitive information to a reporter for the New York Times? Not if her name is Judith Miller and she is writing scary stories about Iraq’s alleged arsenal of forbidden weapons. By her own account, Miller received numerous classified leaks long before Lewis (Scooter) Libby whispered Valerie Plame’s name to her.

In fact, selective leaks that advance the objectives of the White House and the Pentagon — by misinforming the public — are not really leaks at all.

Does anyone who leaks about NSA eavesdropping belong in prison? Not if that person happens to be a Republican senator. At least twice in recent years, ranking senators have revealed potentially damaging secrets, which were then broadcasted and published.

On Sept. 11, 2001, only hours after al Qaeda’s hijackers struck, Sen. Orrin Hatch told the Associated Press about a briefing he had just received from intelligence officials. An al Qaeda operative had been overheard talking with his handler, according to Hatch, who also blabbed to ABC News.

“They have an intercept of some information that includes people associated with [Osama] bin Laden who acknowledged a couple of targets were hit,” said the voluble Utah Republican, who mentioned that he had heard about the phone intercept from the CIA and the FBI. Administration officials were displeased with the senator’s outburst, but nobody prosecuted him or lifted his security clearances.

The following year, Sen. Richard Shelby evidently told reporters for CNN and Fox News Channel about two messages in Arabic that had been intercepted by the NSA on Sept. 10, 2001. (“The match is about to begin,” said one; “Tomorrow is zero hour,” said the other; but neither was translated until Sept. 12.) A desultory investigation by the FBI ended without the issuance of any subpoenas, and the bureau referred its findings to the Senate Ethics Committee, which dropped the matter without taking any action against the Alabama Republican.

While both senators denied revealing any classified information, each seems to have done so. If al Qaeda’s leaders realized that the NSA was monitoring their communications, the damage was likely done years ago by those senatorial disclosures — and not by last December’s newspaper reports.

But protecting national security isn’t the purpose of investigating leakers who have exposed the scandalous underside of the Bush administration. Those investigations are meant to intimidate whistleblowers, dissidents and skeptical reporters — and to make sure we don’t know anything the White House doesn’t want us to know.

To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2006 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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