Be careful what you ask for

With political debris from the Valerie Plame probe and indictment of top White House aide “Scooter” Libby still sifting down on the national capital, you would think Washington would be more careful about calling for more leak investigations. But no.

On Nov. 2, The Washington Post ran a story on a CIA-run covert network of secret prisons overseas, rumors of whose existence have circulated for several years. The “black sites” were in eight countries, including _ and this disclosure caused great controversy _ several democracies in Eastern Europe. Most of the story focused on the CIA’s dilemma in how to hold and interrogate a growing number of terrorist suspects, including genuine evildoers, free from outside interference from the courts, Congress, press, human-rights groups and foreign governments.

It was indeed a closely held secret, initially confined to a handful of top executive-branch officials and kept from most members of Congress. But the CIA certainly knew the secret wouldn’t last. The foreign governments knew, the people living around the prisons could probably guess and the host countries appear to have been mostly open societies. The prisons were the subject of growing debate within the CIA and the executive branch. And Vice President Cheney’s effort to have the CIA exempted from torture regulations raised questions about what exactly the CIA was doing with prisoners and where. It was only a matter of time.

Leaks happen and the Post reporter, Dana Priest, a recognized expert on national security issues, probably didn’t need anything handed to her. This is not Libby II.

Even so, Senate Republican leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, citing “long-term and far-reaching and damaging consequences” to protecting the homeland, wrote to the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees demanding an immediate joint investigation into the leak. Joint probes are serious business; the last was into 9/11 and before that, Iran-Contra.

There may have been an element of grandstanding in this because the two chairmen only found out about the letters when reporters came around asking about them.

And the two Republican leaders may want to rethink their request. Leak investigations rarely succeed and, once launched, tend to stray off in unexpected directions. Two Republicans immediately proposed that any joint investigation be broadened to include the secret prisons themselves. And Democrats quickly proposed that the investigation include whether the Bush administration deliberately leaked bogus intelligence about WMDs to build a case for invading Iraq.

This is surely not what Frist and Hastert wanted. But at least no one’s asking for a special prosecutor. Yet.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)