WASHINGTON -- Sen. Patrick Leahy's admission that he resigned from the Intelligence Committee this year for 'carelessly' exposing the panel's draft report on the Iran-Contra investigation comes at a time of increased political tension over the issue of leaks to the news media.
Leahy, D-Vt., issued a statement Tuesday in which he admitted leaking the draft report in January, but he and the current leaders of the Intelligence Committee immediately stressed it was not a breach of national security.
Their concern reflects the heightened tensions on the issue in the wake of Lt. Col. Oliver North's accusation at the Iran-Contra hearings that members of Congress are to blame for most of the sensitive news leaks in Washington.
North, the fired White House aide at the heart of the scandal, was promptly reminded by lawmakers that most leaks come from the executive branch, not Capitol Hill -- and Newsweek subsequently revealed North himself was the source of the magazine's 1985 story on the capture of the Achille Lauro hijackers.
Nonetheless, Leahy was anxious to address the issue and his self-described remorse Tuesday after questions had circulated about his January departure as vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
It was known publicly he had given up his seniority on that panel in order to become chairman of the Agriculture Committee in the now Democratic-led Senate.
Administration intelligence officials told The Washington Times last week that Leahy and Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn., a former Intelligence Committee chairman, threatened in a letter to the CIA to disclose details of a top secret plan to undermine the government of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi in 1985. A few weeks later details of the plan were leaked to The Washington Post and the covert operation apparently was scrapped.
The Washington Times reported today that Durenberger is being investigated by the Senate ethics committee over allegations that he leaked details about a U.S. intelligence source in Israel.
The Times also reported that a separate leak of classified information had been traced to Leahy and Durenberger through their visitors' logs that contained the names of reporters who published the story, which was not identified.
In a prepared statement, Leahy said Tuesday he had allowed a reporter to look at part of the draft staff report on the committee's early Iran-Contra probe in an effort to show the document was not being withheld for partisan reasons.
At the time of the January leak, Republicans on the Intelligence Committee were pressing for release of the report, which they believed would help clear President Reagan of wrongdoing in his worst crisis. Democrats were reluctant, saying the report was based on incomplete information and could be misleading.
The leak led to an NBC News account of the draft report -- and much political finger-pointing until the committee released its final version Jan. 29.
Leahy asserted his only goal was to prove that the draft 'was being held up because there were major gaps and other problems with it, and not because of a desire to embarrass the president.' He said he was 'angry with himself for carelessly allowing the press person to examine the unclassified draft.'
Indeed, he was so upset that he decided to resign from the panel before his term expired, he said. He offered his resignation Jan. 13 and was replaced by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio.
Sens. David Boren of Oklahoma, the new Democratic chairman of the committee, and William Cohen of Maine, the new Republican vice chairman, agreed Tuesday the leak was unauthorized but was not a national security breach under Senate rules because the draft report was not classified.