In President Bush’s news conference today, he cited security concerns in dodging a question on the former Deputy AG’s dramatic showdown-at-the-hospital account:
PRESIDENT BUSH: Kelly, there’s a lot of speculation about what happened and what didn’t happen; I’m not going to talk about it. It’s a very sensitive program. I will tell you that, one, the program is necessary to protect the American people, and it’s still necessary because there’s still an enemy that wants to do us harm.
And therefore, I have an obligation to put in place programs that honor the civil liberties of the American people; a program that was, in this case, constantly reviewed and briefed to the United States Congress. And the program, as I say, is an essential part of protecting this country.
And so there will be all kinds of talk about it. As I say, I’m not going to move the issue forward by talking about something as highly sensitive — highly classified subject. I will tell you, however, that the program is necessary.
But as Massimo Calabresi reports on TIME.com, security experts say an unsecured hospital room wasn’t exactly an ideal place to have been discussing it either. In fact, doing so may have violated the law:
“Executive branch rules require sensitive classified information to be discussed in specialized facilities that are designed to guard against the possibility that officials are being targeted for surveillance outside of the workplace,” says Georgetown Law Professor Neal Katyal, who was National Security Advisor to the Deputy Attorney General under Bill Clinton. “The hospital room of a cabinet official is exactly the type of target ripe for surveillance by a foreign power,” Katyal says. This particular information could have been highly sensitive. Says one government official familiar with the Terrorist Surveillance Program: “Since it’s that program, it may involve cryptographic information,” some of the most highly protected information in the intelligence community.
The law controlling the unwarranted disclosure of classified information that has been gained through electronic surveillance is particularly strict. In the past, everyone from low-level officers in the armed forces to sitting Senators have been investigated by the Justice department for the> intentional disclosure of such information. The penalty for “knowingly and willfully” disclosing information “concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States” carries a penalty up to 10 years in prison under U.S. law. “It’s the one you worry about, says the government official familiar with the program.