BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. When a big story based on a leak hits the news it's always instructive to figure out who leaked it and why. But it's the one bit of context that the writers of the stories simply cannot provide, lest they burn their sources. That's why those key bits of information often fail to go beyond the whispers of Washington drawing rooms. Such is the case with many of the revelations in the past few weeks about the failure to detect terrorist activity leading up to September 11th. The latest big development was the Newsweek story about the CIA's failure to adequately track the men believed to be September 11th conspirators. Joining us now is Will Saletan who is Slate's chief political correspondent. Will, welcome back to OTM.
WILL SALETAN: Thanks. Happy to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: All right let's start with the Newsweek story. Who do you believe leaked this to Michael Isikoff.
WILL SALETAN: Well it's not too hard to figure out that the driving force behind this leak is the FBI, and that's because for the past several weeks the FBI has been on the griddle for failing to anticipate what happened on September 11th, so they needed to put somebody else under the heat, and they just leaked something I presume which turns out to be a story suggesting that the CIA had information which could have prevented September 11th. So it's basically an attempt to let somebody else sit on the hot seat for a while.
BOB GARFIELD:Can we equally presume that some of the stories that reflected poorly on the FBI had been leaked by the CIA to get some egg off of its face?
WILL SALETAN: That's harder to tell, because the retaliatory leak is much easier to spot. You know who's been on the hot seat, and then you can start reading the code words in the story. Whenever you see a story that refers to counterterrorism officials, phrases like that, you can start narrowing down who the people who leaked it were -- maybe CIA, maybe FBI, national security -- those kinds of people.
BOB GARFIELD:Well one of the striking aspects of this situation is that there seems to be a double standard. In the midst of war and criminal prosecutions we are often told that sources and methods of intelligence gathering will be protected no matter what, and yet when the public image of the CIA or the FBI hangs in the balance, protection of sources and methods seems not to be so important any more. What are we to conclude from that?
WILL SALETAN: I think we're to conclude that perhaps they aren't as serious as they claim to be about sources and methods. One of my favorite leaks from the past couple of weeks was Porter Goss [sp?], chairman of the House Intelligence Commission, was on one of the Sunday talk shows which are a great place to leak. He said you know we had testimony last week that some of these leaks that have been coming out over the last week or two have done serious damage to our assets abroad. Now here is a guy trying to make a point about how bad leaks are, and he's essentially handing information to anybody who's watching television in the United States, [LAUGHTER] telling them, you know, whatever you did in the last two weeks, whoever you rubbed out thinking that they were the ones who passed this along, you got 'em - you're on the right track. You can go back to the old rule that the higher up you go in the political food chain, the clumsier you get. George W. Bush is very far from the ground. If you can get Bush to sit down and talk to you, often you've got a better chance of getting information you shouldn't be getting than if you were to be interviewing the agents on the ground who actually deal with these sources.
BOB GARFIELD:Immediately after September 11th we remember seeing images of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld warning anyone within his own Defense Department that if they're caught leaking they'll, you know, they'll be shot on sight or something almost as serious. And the president repeatedly said that he will do nothing to compromise intelligence sources. I'm guessing that the Bush administration is no longer heeding the principle behind those threats.
WILL SALETAN: The Bush administration had a pretty good thing going for several months. People were not leaking and reporters were constantly complaining about how they couldn't get leaks, and then September 11th comes along and there are some leaks to protect the agencies. And now what we've got is this lovely open frenzy among the agencies. As soon as the first report came out which I think was the one about how Bush had received an intelligence briefing in early August that suggested something about Al Qaeda and hijackings; you know that turned out to be completely useless. That was not evidence that could have led anybody to figure out what was going on on September 11th. But what it did was it opened up this media frenzy of who screwed up and allowed 9/11 to happen? And once that happened, every agency went into this mode of self-protection.
BOB GARFIELD:Do you think that the press was chastened by the way the original story mischaracterized the president's knowledge or do you think it's just learned that if you want a bonanza, float something a little irresponsible and look what will come your way?
WILL SALETAN: Oh, I think the latter. I think reporters are delighted with the way this turned out. I mean what happened at the outset was that Condy Rice then held a press conference at which she, you know, went on for about 45 minutes telling people everything about this briefing that Bush had received; what was in it; what wasn't in it. They asked her to read it. She said well I can't read it but then she proceeded to describe it in such detail that she virtually read it. Reporters essentially followed this trail, because you can't release information like that without revealing something about what somebody else in the intelligence community knew; then those people have to answer questions from reporters, and you end up with this lovely back and forth.
BOB GARFIELD:Is it possible that all of this sniping between the FBI and the CIA far from improving either agency's reputation from the public just make the public increasingly disgusted with the whole lot of them and fear for our security based on these Keystone Cops and their-- leaking shenanigans?
WILL SALETAN: The public may get disgusted, and the public may get afraid, but if it's based on leaks which are essentially true -- even if partial truths -- together those leaks add up to a whole truth, and if on that basis the public becomes disgusted or afraid, it will be informed disgust and informed fear. Our job is to inform the public, and whether on the basis of that information they become afraid or disgusted is up to them. But that's our job.
BOB GARFIELD: Good answer. Will, thanks very much. Will Saletan is the chief political correspondent for Slate.com. [MUSIC]