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Put the Patriot Act to good use - on the White House leak

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Pity President Bush. He may be the most powerful man on earth, running the most disciplined White House in recent memory, but when it comes to finding the source of the leak that has this town buzzing, he's as helpless as the rest of us, he says.

All he knows, he says, is what we know. Sometime in July two "senior administration officials" called a half-dozen journalists and leaked to them the identity of an undercover CIA officer. One, columnist Robert Novak, ran with the story and made that identity known to the public at large. For a public official to leak this information, it turns out, is a violation of federal law, and now the CIA is angry and the Justice Department is investigating.

The president is reportedly furious over the news. He hates leaks and wants to find out the source, he says, but his hands are tied. Without the reporters revealing who their source was, he's not sure the leaker will ever be found. "This is a large administration," he told reporters last week with a chuckle.

The president raises an interesting point. Clearly there are at least six reporters who know who the leaker is and they're not likely to give up the information. In journalism, that's part of the deal. If a journalist reveals his source, he's violated his contract, and his chances of getting tips in the future shrivel. Like it or not, that's how the game is played here. That's how important (and often unimportant) information gets to the public.

So is the president right, then? Yes and no.

Presidential administrations are, without question, large. But when one takes into account all the issues here, the group involved narrows.

First, the subject matter limits the possible leakers. The Departments of Agriculture and Interior were not involved here. The number of people involved in the administration's day-to-day machinations on politics, Iraq, and intelligence is limited.

Second, while the words "senior administration official" are thrown around this town more than "no comment," they're probably accurate in this case. Considering the celebrity journalists contacted here (Mr. Novak and Andrea Mitchell are two known names), these calls didn't come from an intern.

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