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Plugging leaks in capital. Iran-contra hearings show how loose tongues undermine trust between government branches

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Leaks, and how to plug them, have become a central issue as Congress sorts out possible reforms in the wake of the Iran-contra affair. Many lawmakers were offended by the presumption of Lt. Col. Oliver North and Rear Adm. John Poindexter that Congress cannot be trusted to keep a secret. Colonel North and Admiral Poindexter kept their dealings with Iran secret from Congress, they testified, because they feared that once Congress was officially informed of the initiative, the initiative would be made public.

North charged that Congress was capable of ``incredible leaks.'' He cited the leak of information to a reporter that the Central Intelligence Agency had mined Nicaragua's harbors. ``These kinds of [leaks] are devastating,'' he testified. ``They are devastating to the national security of the United States.''

North's charges found a certain resonance among the general public. One telegram, addressed to North, asserted that ``Congress is as leaky as a 200-year-old water pipe.''

Lawmakers are quick to insist that most leaks, intended or not, come from the executive. The law requires that the administration keep members of both the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence apprised of ongoing covert activities. ``There are a number of ongoing covert initiatives, some of them more complex [than the Iran-contra initiative], and no one has said anything about them,'' says Sen. Paul Trible (R) of Virginia. Agrees Rep. Edward Jenkins (D) of Georgia: ``Sometimes the ones that leak are the ones we aren't told about.''

Lawmakers are particularly miffed that North and others felt free to confide in the Iranians, who were part of the scheme, but not the Congress. ``Imagine trusting a secret with the Ayatollah before trusting your own Congress,'' says Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York.

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