The headline in The New York Times was humorous, perhaps intentionally so. "CIA Drafts Covert Plan To Topple Hussein." "A major program of sabotage and subversion," the Times said, quoting unnamed "government officials." But a covert plan you read about in the papers is clearly a covert plan no longer.
The last time a covert plan to topple Saddam Hussein was leaked, at least it happened only after the plan had fizzled. That was a program that included small arms for Kurdish guerrillas and leaflets ridiculing Saddam Hussein on his birthday and dropped over Baghdad by unmanned aircraft.
Warren Marek, who ran that program for the CIA, thought it was absurd. So he retired and spilled the story to ABC television and The Washington Post. Attorney General Janet Reno ordered an investigation into the disclosure of classified information. But that went nowhere. Six Iraqi survivors of that operation, who were given refuge in this country, have been fighting deportation. Their lawyer is former CIA Director James Woolsey.
Now Congress wants to protect the right of CIA whistle-blowers to inform Congress of wrong-headed operations. President Clinton is against it because experience teaches that if you tell a secret to Congress, it won't stay secret very long.
Without being specific about my own past sources, there is a long history of CIA operations that leaked after being confided to congressional committees. One was the sponsoring and the subsequent dumping of a Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein in 1972. Another was the 1970 operation to bring down President Salvador Allende of Chile. Another was a leak in 1975 of the operation to support the rebellion of pro-Western Jonas Savimbi in Angola against the Soviet-supported government.
By law, the administration is supposed to notify Congress in advance of a covert operation by something called "a presidential finding." The Reagan administration came up with a novel version of that when it did not want to tell Congress of CIA involvement in shipping missiles to Iran. It informed Congress much later in something called a "retroactive finding."
No one has yet figured out how to maintain congressional oversight on covert actions without risking exposure. The Senate suggested one answer when it openly appropriated $15 million to support the democratic opposition in Iraq and to beam anti-Saddam Hussein messages into Iraq. If the operation is one that the US has no cause to be ashamed of, why does it have to be covert? What's wrong with an overt operation in support of US foreign policy objectives?
* Daniel Schorr is a National Public Radio senior news analyst.