Why leaks are good for you
Let me explain. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan recently theorized that the press disclosures about U.S. cyberattacks against Iran and about American drone warfare were leaked by the White House to portray Barack Obama as a decisive wartime president to aid in his re-election. That an administration might leak national security information for political advantage is no fantasy: In 2006, the Los Angeles Times documented several examples of President George W. Bush’s administration leaking classified material to change public sentiment in his favor.
But Noonan’s reductionist thinking fails to explain last month’s messy leak in the underwear bomber plot. That particular leak blew a double agent’s cover, endangering the agent’s life and benefiting the White House in no way.
The problem with attributing political intentions to all leaks is that: 1) often reporters piece a story together independently of The One Big Leaker and 2) sources leak for a variety of reasons. Stephen Hess notes in his 1984 taxonomy that some leakers leak in exchange for a future favor, others to launch trial balloons or settle grudges or inflate their own egos. Some leaks are acts of defiance against the state, such as the embassy cables and war logs released by WikiLeaks. Other, less spectacular leaks of classified material flow out of the Pentagon and other agencies as briefers and sources respond daily to reporters’ queries, as Steven Aftergood explained two weeks ago. Such unauthorized disclosures happen, Aftergood wrote, “not to subvert policy but to explain it, to defend it and to execute it.”
The most significant leaks, especially of state secrets, usually end up igniting policy debates that should have already been burning. The progenitor of this kind of leak is the Pentagon Papers, which placed U.S. intervention in Vietnam in a new context. The December 2005 New York Times account about the National Security Agency’s warrantless interception of thousands of international phone calls, international emails, and other data stands as another example. Published over the objections of the Bush White House and the NSA, the Times coverage by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau inspired Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and others to contemplate the prosecution of the Times and its journalists under the espionage laws. It also rekindled a civil liberties debate that had gone moribund during the early months of the “war on terrorism.”
As rekindlers go, David Sanger’s recent reports in the New York Times and new book about cyberwarfare – Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power – are pretty hot. I release you to decide for yourself the motivations of Sanger’s sources, but it’s my judgment that whatever their reasons, Sanger’s findings give public voice to internal dissenters who crave a broader discussion of the wisdom of cyberwarfare. That was a bell that Sanger was more than happy to ring two days after his first (June 1) Times piece on the topic appeared. In it, Sanger wrote (June 3): “[T]here has never been a real debate in the United States about when and how to use cyberweapons.”
It would be a stretch to consider Sanger’s unnamed sources “dissidents.” He describes them flatly as “current and former American, European and Israeli officials involved in the program, as well as a range of outside experts. None would allow their name to be used, because the effort remains highly classified, and parts of it continue to this day.” But supplementing Sanger’s knowledge of a super-secret program can’t be considered acts of obedience. If you unpack the comment of “one official” in his June 3 story, you hear anonymous bitching about the lack of a serious internal debate on the topic. Sanger wrote:
No one, [an official involved in the cyberwarfare discussions] said, “wanted to engage, at least not yet, in the much deeper, broader debate about the criteria for when we use these kinds of weapons and what message it sends to the rest of the world.”
Sanger gets government sources on the record in his book, but the only people who will talk to him about the covert program (code-named Olympic Games) to wreck the Iranian nuclear program insist on wearing bags over their heads. “That project remains among the most highly classified inside the US and Israeli governments. On this subject, both American and foreign sources demanded complete anonymity,” he wrote in Confront and Conceal‘s note on sources.
And yet they talked, and their disclosures have fueled criticism of the wisdom of weaponizing computer code by Misha Glenny on the Times op-ed page, Christopher Mims in Technology Review, Steve Coll in the New Yorker, John Naughton in the Guardian, and others.
A new study published by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Society captures the national security leaker as debate firestarter. Titled “Anatomy of a Secret” (pdf) and written by veteran journalist H.D.S. Greenway, the paper reviews the gnarly course to publication taken by the Times‘s 2005 NSA scoop by Risen and Lichtblau.
Drawing on interviews with principals at the Times and in the government, as well as Risen’s book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration and Lichtblau’s Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice, Greenway’s paper doesn’t make Risen and Lichtblau’s Dec. 16, 2005, scoop look like the fruit of an organized uprising from inside the bureaucracy against the Bush-Cheney administration. But it does depict a minor riot. In the Times, Risen and Lichtblau described their confidential sources thusly:
Nearly a dozen current and former officials, who were granted anonymity because of the classified nature of the program, discussed it with reporters for the New York Times because of their concerns about the operation’s legality and oversight.
Lichtblau’s book makes it more specific. In a passage from Bush’s Law cited by Greenway, Lichtblau writes about a source who approached him blindly, “agitated about something going on in the government’s intelligence community.” That something would later be revealed as the NSA intercept program. Risen gives equal voice to the dissenters in State of War, who agreed to talk about the intercepts not just because they thought the program was wrong but because they feared they’d eventually be blamed for it. Risen:
Several government officials who know about the NSA operation have come forward to talk about it because they are deeply troubled by it, and they believe that by keeping silent they would become complicit in it. They strongly believe that the president’s secret order is in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches, and some of them believe that an investigation should be launched into the way the Bush administration has turned the intelligence community’s most powerful tools against the American people.
So adamant were some of the Times‘s sources about seeing the story in print that then-Times Executive Editor Bill Keller tells Greenway that “key sources” threatened to take the story to a competing newspaper when Keller put it on ice in 2004. (For a variety of reasons explained in the paper, the Times held the story for more than a year before going to press.) These “key sources” wanted the story out before the 2004 presidential election in hopes that it would derail President Bush’s re-election (score one for Noonan’s they-leak-for-political-reasons point of view).
The weakest and most typical responses to firestarter leaks are: 1) calls for Justice Department investigation of the leaks, 2) calls for prosecution of publications and journalists, and 3) calls for new anti-leak measures. The Sanger story has already two of the three typical responses. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wants hearings about the cyber leaks, the Republicans want a special investigator to find the leakers, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has announced new anti-leak measures, if you want to call new polygraph questions for national security employees and new leak investigators a crackdown. Although the Obama administration has prosecuted a record number of leakers, it’s still extraordinarily difficult to bring a successful leak prosecution to court, as Charlie Savage explained in the Times earlier this month. And no matter what measures Democrats, Republicans, and the Department of Justice take, successful prosecutions will remain exceptions to the rule
Traditionally, the calls for investigations and prosecutions of leakers are designed to change the subject away from the significant material leaked to the leakers themselves. It’s up to you to decide which matters most to you: the fact that somebody leaked or what the government does in your name. Don’t just sit there. Join the debate.
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PHOTO: U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) (L), speaks during a news conference to discuss “The Obama Administration’s national security leaks” in the Capitol in Washington, June 26, 2012. Also pictured are (L-R) Republican Senators Saxby Chambliss, John Cornyn and Roger Wicker. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque