The brewing controversy over leaks of classified information presumes that disclosures of classified information to unauthorized persons are always impermissible and undesirable. But that presumption does not correspond precisely to the reality of government operations as they are conducted in practice.

The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees said last week that they would work “to ensure that criminal and administrative measures are taken each time sensitive information is improperly disclosed.”

In fact, however, classified information is frequently disclosed at the interface between national security agencies and the news media. This is not necessarily a surreptitious or underhanded process. Rather, though it is not often discussed, it is how the system normally functions.

“I refer to classified information a lot,” admitted then-Pentagon press secretary Kenneth Bacon at a November 2000 press briefing, when asked whether all of his statements from the podium were unclassified.

“There are certain questions that I can only answer by referring to classified information,” Bacon said at that time, adding that “I do this carefully, after consultation with our intelligence authorities, to make sure that I don’t answer questions in a way that causes any problems.”