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A November 9 Washington Post article -- reporting that Republican congressional leaders demanded "an immediate joint House and Senate investigation into the disclosure of classified information to The Washington Post that detailed a web of secret prisons being used to house and interrogate terrorism suspects" -- left out a key part of the story: On the same day that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) issued the letter to the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees, Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) told reporters that Senate Republicans likely leaked the information.
As CNN congressional correspondent Ed Henry reported during the November 8 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
HENRY: Senior officials up here say they believe it was former and current CIA officials. And indeed, if you look at The Washington Post story, they did quote current and former CIA officials. But a very curious development in the last hour: Republican Senator Trent Lott stunned reporters by declaring that this subject was actually discussed at a Senate Republican luncheon, Republican senators only, last Tuesday. The day before the story ran in The Washington Post, Lott noted that Vice President [Dick] Cheney was also in the room for that discussion, and Lott said point-blank, quote, "a lot of it came out of that room last Tuesday," pointing to the room where the lunch was held in the Capitol. He added of senators, quote, "We can't keep our mouths shut." And then he added about the vice president, quote, "He was up here last week, and he talked up here in that room right there in a roomful of nothing but senators, and every word that was said in there went right to the newspaper." Lott basically says he believes when all is said and done, this may wind up as an ethics investigation, in part, of a Republican senator, maybe a Republican staffer as well. Senator Frist's office not commenting on this development. The Washington Post's not commenting either.
The original November 2 Post article on the alleged secret prisons, by staff writer Dana Priest, reported: "The CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe, according to U.S. and foreign officials familiar with the arrangement."
Neither Priest nor the Post has publicly acknowledged who the unnamed sources for the report were. But after Frist and Hastert demanded an inquiry into how the classified information was disclosed, Lott "said that senators from his party might have given information to the Post," as the Los Angeles Times reported:
Asked whether he thought there should be a probe of the existence of the prisons, or of the leak of classified information about them, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina rolled his eyes and replied: "How about both? I'd like to know why we've got secret prisons and what oversight precautions we have."
It is "imperative we regain the moral high ground," he said. "And having secret prisons come out in the Washington Post is not a good way to regain it."
Another Republican, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, said that senators from his party might have given information to the Post. Lott told reporters that the existence of the prison system was discussed last week at the Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill, which was attended by Vice President Dick Cheney and held the day before the Post published its report.
"Information that was said in there, given out in there, did get into the newspaper," Lott said. "I don't know where else it came from. ... It looked to me that at least one of those reports came right out of that room."
Similarly, The New York Times reported: "Lott noted that accounts of a private discussion on detainee policy between Mr. Cheney and Senate Republicans last week had also leaked to the press."
On the November 9 edition of CNN's American Morning, Henry reported that Republicans are challenging Lott's assertion: "Now, other Republicans are saying Lott is confused, and that in fact classified information did not leak from that meeting."
Yet the Post -- the newspaper at the center of the story itself -- did not mention Lott's comments. Its November 9 report, by staff writer Jonathan Weisman, stated that "[l]awmakers from both parties immediately expressed misgivings about the request" for an investigation and cited arguments by some Republicans that any investigation should include the existence of the prisons themselves, but it did not cite Lott. The Post report concluded that "[m]ore generally, Republicans suggested it is unwise to pick a fight with the media over an issue that exposes so many political vulnerabilities for their party."
From Weisman's November 9 front-page Post report, headlined "GOP Leaders Urge Probe in Prisons Leak":
Lawmakers from both parties immediately expressed misgivings about the request. Democrats pounced on it, suggesting that if the GOP leaders believe the disclosure of information on secret prisons deserves to be investigated, so does the leak of inaccurate intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and White House officials identifying Plame as a covert CIA operative.
"There is plenty to investigate about the Bush administration's use and misuse of intelligence," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "The American people deserve the truth."
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said investigating the source of the prison article would be acceptable, as long as Congress also investigates the secret prisons themselves.
"If you want to investigate everything and not be selective, that would make sense," he said.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said: "Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. The real story is those jails."
More generally, Republicans suggested it is unwise to pick a fight with the media over an issue that exposes so many political vulnerabilities for their party.