Domestic Spying Leak Draws Justice Department Probe

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The Justice Department has begun an investigation into the source of The New York Times report that the National Security Agency was spying on American citizens within the United States without court approval.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

The Justice Department is again investigating who leaked classified information to The New York Times. This time the leaks led to a story about the wiretapping of American citizens and others within the United States by the National Security Agency. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:

President Bush blasted the disclosure of the eavesdropping program at a press conference earlier this month.

(Soundbite of press conference)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: It was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in time of war. The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy.

FOLKENFLIK: The president says he can legally authorize domestic wiretaps without court approval to pursue people with, quote, "known links to al-Qaeda and related terrorist organizations," unquote. But The Times cited nearly a dozen unnamed current and former government officials who said they feared the program may have broken a 1978 law against domestic spying without warrants. The Times would not comment on the investigation sparked by the story by reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau. Earlier this year, former Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail for 85 days for refusing to comply with a subpoena for her confidential source on the leak of an undercover CIA agent's identity. Miller ultimately testified that it was a senior aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and the aide was indicted for perjury.

Mr. JAMES GOODALE (Former Vice Chairman, The New York Times): I'm telling you, this case is going to make the Judy Miller case look like very small potatoes if the Justice Department decides to go after the press.

FOLKENFLIK: That's James Goodale, former vice chairman and general counsel of The New York Times. He says sources in the wiretap story were classic whistle-blowers who deserve to have their anonymity protected, not revealed.

Mr. GOODALE: The issue isn't who leaked it. The issue is who broke the law. It seems to me there's a huge conspiracy to break the law. It's like Watergate.

FOLKENFLIK: Congressional leaders pushed for a formal inquiry into leaks about the wiretapping program, just as they did after an earlier bombshell story. That one involved the capture of suspected terrorists by the CIA, which flew them to secret prisons outside the United States. The Washington Post reported those interrogations may not have been conducted according to American law or some international treaties. Post reporter Dana Priest recently told NPR she solicited official response about whether her story would damage national security before it ran.

Ms. DANA PRIEST (The Washington Post): The gray area is, on a story like naming the sites of the secret CIA prisons, where we have the information, we come to the government to say, `Would you like to say anything about those?'

FOLKENFLIK: The Post withheld the names of the eastern European countries where some prisons were located, but ran the story. The Justice Department won't confirm whether it's investigating The Post's sources. The Times held off on publishing its domestic wiretapping for a year. Editors cited the need for more reporting. But as Priest noted, The Times said White House officials urged the paper not to publish.

Ms. PRIEST: They're weighing the government's argument that this will alert suspected terrorists or collaborators or supporters to a method vs. the public's concern over intrusion of privacy and thus crossing the line.

FOLKENFLIK: The Times said there aren't many government officials who knew of the wiretapping program, just a few in Congress, the Cabinet, and at the CIA, the Justice Department and the National Security Agency.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

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