"LEAKING IS A TWO EDGED SWORD"
My friend Bruce Kesler,
at Democracy Project
, has a sober and overdue examination of secrecy, leaking and national security in the wake of The New York Times intentionally perverse outing of a critical intelligence program
designed to track the financial transactions of terrorist groups. "Transparency Needed To Control Leaks
" cuts to the heart of the problem - some excerpts:"The furor over the New York Times and other newspapers’ publication of national security secrets disguises a larger problem: the media and government knowingly collude in leaking secret information. There is a federal law against leaking communications intelligence (U.S. Code Title 18, Part I, Chapter 37, Paragraph 798) that has not been enforced. For those who wonder why there are not prosecutions of leakers of national security programs, this wider collusion between the media and government officials may be partly responsible...However, leaking is a two-edged sword, as the administration and those close to it employ leaks to get their side of stories published or to lead discussion of selected issues. The revelation of the secret briefing by General Casey about the proposed draw down schedule of U.S. troops in Iraq, subject to events and negotiations with the Iraqi government, may be aimed at defusing Democrat calls for setting a rigid timetable....One can point to a long tradition of presidents and senior administration officials “speaking off the record” to reporters on sensitive issues. However, one can also point out that self-restraint by the media on matters of national security was greater in previous times. This means of communication to further the public’s understanding of issues and to build mutual trust was useful to the government, to reporters, and the public....What is required is new legislation that broadens the existing U.S. Code to include all matters of national security, applicable to all present and former government employees and officials, Congressional members and staff, and the media, coupled with confidential prior judicial consideration and enforcement mechanisms, and strict prosecution of those not abiding.If this or any administration has something worth keeping secret, it should be willing to seek prosecution of its own employees who break that trust. If Congress needs more information to perform its representative functions, it must be willing to be policed for those who break trust. If media are to be a “fourth estate” instead of a “fifth column,” it must respect judged national security and be willing to be restrained. "Read it in full here.
I have to second much of Bruce's argument, though with less eloquence.
The leakage in Washington is an elite bipartisan effort to use the products of the IC as political clubs with which to beat one another, costs to the rest of us be damned - Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department, reporters, editors, Republicans, Democrats - no one has clean hands here. A major part of the problem is that the Federal government is to the designation " top secret" what the Weimar Republic was to money. The hyperinflation in secrecy classification is mostly used to hide that which is politically embarrassing or, frequently, rather trivial, for decades. Additionally, it is applied to what can only be described as a cosmic number of documents. This mindboggling expansion of what is considered "secret" radically degrades respect for what ought be considered, and kept, truly secret.
A reduction of official secrecy by about 90 % would do national security no harm but democracy a whole lot of good.
Speaking as a historian, even most of even what should
be considered " secret" - for example, time sensitive information related to diplomatic negotiations - can be safely published in just a few years time. Far less time, in fact, than what is currently used to declassify papers for each new edition of FRUS
. Intelligence sources and methods - especially those of ongoing covert operations like the one destroyed by the editors of the Times
- are another matter. Publication here does serious damage to U.S. interests and in some instances, endangers lives. Other than in cases of alerting the public to grave
wrongdoing by government officials, this behavior is both unethical and illegal and should be subject to prosecution, as Bruce suggests.
Can we trust administration officials -this one or any other - to make the right call here ? Or the Congress ? Or bureaucrats ? Unfortunately not, as history shows that officeholders have a natural inclination to hide as many activities as possible from public view. For its part, a media that feels professionally inclined to be "neutral" between apocalyptic terrorists and their own government that is trying to defend them is no safe guardian either.
A law, narrowly defined to relate only to intelligence operations that have been properly reported to Congress, should suffice to protect that which should be truly kept secret but the political will to punish leakers and the wisdom to use it wisely must come from the American people themselves.
Their elected representatives, their journalists, left to their own devices, are self-serving and faithless.