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Hello, 2006. The New York Times kicked off the new year by refusing to answer its own ombudsman’s questions about the timing of the newspaper’s anonymous illegal leak-dependent National Security Agency monitoring story. Long live transparency and accountability.

Meanwhile, Times reporter James Risen launched his anonymous illegal leak-dependent book, “State of War,” with a self-congratulatory appearance on NBC’s “Today” show. Risen’s leakers, he told Couric, were the opposite of the Valerie Plame-case leakers because his people came forward “for the best reasons.” How do we know that’s true? Because Risen says it is. So there.

Risen then patted himself and his bosses on the back for their “great public service” in publishing the story (never too soon to go Pulitzer Prize-begging) and heaped more praise on his anonymous sources as “truly American patriots.” Risen also told Couric that many of his law-breaking sources “came to us because they thought you have to follow the rules and you have to follow the law.” Uh-huh.

Asked about the timing of the original story (held a year, then published in the midst of Senate debate over the Patriot Act and a few weeks before the release of his book), Risen said “it wasn’t my decision” and refused to “discuss the internal deliberations.”

In other words: Keeping secrets to protect counterterrorism operations is an impeachable offense, but keeping secrets to protect the Gray Lady’s fanny is an elite media prerogative.

In his book, Risen finds evidence of sinister motives everywhere. This passage on p. 53 is typical:

The existence of the [NSA surveillance] Program has been kept so secret that senior Bush administration officials have gone to great lengths to hide the origins of the intelligence it gathers. When the NSA finds potentially useful intelligence in the U.S.-based telecommunications switches, it is “laundered” before it is widely distributed to case officers at the CIA or special agents of the FBI, officials said. Reports are said not to identify that the intelligence came from intercepts of U.S.-based telecommunications.

Never mind that such practice, dating back to at least World War II, is routine when sources are classified.

Oblivious to the need to keep classified programs secret, Risen goes on to castigate the Bush administration for not asking Congress to publicly debate the NSA program.

He ends the book with a Cindy Sheehan-esque sermon attacking neoconservatives and the right-wing pundits who supported them, and pays tribute to the heroic “disaffected moderates,” including, we presume, his law-breaking sources.

If Risen’s good-leak/bad-leak spin sounds familiar, that’s because Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., was plying it this weekend on Fox News Sunday. Asked about the Justice Department criminal investigation into the NYT-NSA leaks, Schumer sputtered: “There are differences between felons and whistleblowers, and we ought to wait until the investigation occurs to decide what happened.”

Schumer, as I’ve noted previously, has some nerve pontificating about secrets and disclosures. Guess he puts his former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee staffers, Katie Barge and Lauren Weiner, in the noble “whistleblower” category. (I checked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., last week, by the way, and the investigation into Barge and Weiner’s involvement in illegally obtaining a credit report on Maryland’s Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is still ongoing.)

Contrary to the one-armed Democrat plumbers’ wishes, you can’t just selectively plug the leaks you don’t like and let the other half flood freely. The law regarding disclosures of classified information does not grant an exception based on leakers’ motives. See U.S. Code Title 18, Part I, Chapter 37, Section 798. Nope, no Bush Derangement Syndrome exemptions there.

In any case, we’ll soon see if and how long Risen is willing to stay in jail to protect his pure and patriotic illegal leakers.

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