SOMEWHERE J. Edgar Hoover must be getting a hoot out of this: FBI officials under congressional investigation for intelligence failures want to strap members of Congress to lie-detectors to ask if they are leaking details of their bungling to the press.
The only redeeming feature of the FBI polygraph request is that it highlights the absurdity of this whole leak investigation. Surely, with the war on terrorism still under way and no suspects in the anthrax attacks, the FBI has better things to do than ferret out congressional blabbermouths.
The press loves blabbermouths, of course. Those who take it upon themselves to pass along government secrets play a crucial role in a democracy. Without them, information that reflects unfavorably on an agency or administration would never be revealed.
Leakers are by no means confined to Congress. Many, if not most, of the tales told out of school come from administration insiders for reasons ranging from noble to petty that really don't matter. What matters is the public's right to know.
In this case, the leaker tipped off CNN in June to two al-Qaida radio messages that were intercepted by the National Security Agency on the day before the Sept. 11 attacks. The messages - "Tomorrow is zero hour" and "The match begins tomorrow" -were not translated by NSA analysts until after the attacks.
Infuriated, the White House charged that the leak may have provided al-Qaida with information about NSA listening devices. Vice President Dick Cheney chewed out the leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, which had just been briefed on the messages.
Mr. Cheney was employing the time-honored Washington tactic of shifting attention from the content of the leak to its source. But it came at a vulnerable moment for the committees, which were trying to head off the creation of an independent commission to take over their inquiry into why the United States was caught off guard by the Sept. 11 attacks. To demonstrate their professionalism, the committee leaders responded to Mr. Cheney's charge by requesting that the leak be formally investigated. Who else to do it, but the FBI?
Comics have had great fun imagining a lawmaker taking turns with an FBI official on the hotseat. But the FBI's eagerness to submit lawmakers to polygraph tests shows how dangerous this investigation is.
The constitutional separation of powers protects Congress from police action by the executive branch. Lawmakers who reveal classified information can be disciplined by the House and Senate Ethics committees.
If the Bush administration really wants to plug leaks, it might send G-men out looking for those 200 laptops the FBI lost. They are believed to contain all sorts of secret stuff.