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Contentions

The Leak Wars

“The government’s ability to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects overseas allowed the United States to obtain information that helped lead to the arrests last week of three Islamic militants accused of planning bomb attacks in Germany, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, told Senators on Monday”–the New York Times, September 11, 2007

This is curious. Here we have our top spy revealing one of our nation’s most sensitive secrets, involving not only sources and methods but also that holy of holies: communications intelligence. 

If, say, the fruits of an ongoing U.S. surveillance program had been something uncovered and published by the New York Times for all the world to read, would a whole host of critics, including me, be up in arms? What is going on?

The conundrum is easily resolved. First, McConnell, as the nation’s top intelligence officer, and unlike any reporter or editor at the Times, is in a position to evaluate whether a given disclosure will cause damage to American security.

Second, McConnell has the authority, under law, to declassify information when he determines it is in the national interest. The New York Times claims the same authority under the First Amendment. But the First Amendment is compatible with a whole range of restrictions on the press, as in the law of libel, the laws governing commercial speech, and so forth. By contrast, the idea that the media is not obligated to follow laws currently on the books restricting publication of national-defense information flies in the face of both reason and precedent.  

Third, in disclosing the success of the U.S. surveillance program in averting a disaster in Germany, McConnell was not revealing anything new. Why not? Because the Times had already compromised the key facts about the scope of National Security Agency surveillance in a series of stories that began in December 2005.

The fact that even after the Times had tipped them off, terrorists continue to use readily interceptible telephones and email demonstrates how difficult it is for them to find alternative means of rapid long-distance communication. But that is by no means a justification for what the Times did. A host of governments officials–Democrats and Republicans alike–have attested to the damage inflicted on U.S. counterterrorism efforts by the Times’s reporting.

CIA Director General Michael V. Hayden, speaking earlier this week at the Council on Foreign Relations, addressed the problem. His words are worth quoting at length:

Revelations of sources and methods or what seems to me to be an impulse to drag anything CIA does to the darkest corner of the room can make it very difficult for us to perform our vital work. When our operations are exposed–you know, the legal, authorized operations overseen by Congress–when those operations are exposed, it reduces the space and it damages the tools we use to protect Americans.

After the press report on how banking records in the international Swiss network could be monitored, I read a claim that this leak–and I’m quoting now–”bears no resemblance to security breaches”. . . I could not disagree more strongly. In a war that largely depends on our success on collecting intelligence on the enemy, publishing information on our sources and methods can be just as damaging as revelations of troop or ship movements have been in the past. Now the compromise to safety can be both immediate and lasting, and it extends beyond specific individuals. Each revelation of our methods in tracking terrorists, tracking WMD, tracking other threats allows our enemies to cover their tracks and change their practices. We’ll respond, but it takes us valuable time to readjust.

Now, some are out there who say there’s no evidence that leaks of classified information have actually harmed national security. As CIA director, I’m telling you there is and they have. Let me give you just two examples. In one case, leaks provided ammunition for a government to prosecute and imprison one of our sources whose family was also endangered. The revelations had an immediate chilling affect on our ability to collect [intelligence] against a top priority target. In another, a spate of media reports cost us several promising counterterrorism and counter-proliferation assets. Sources not even involved in the operation that was exposed lost confidence that their relationship with us could be kept secret and so they stopped reporting.
. . . On their own, journalists often simply don’t have all the facts needed to make the call on whether the information can be released without harm. I’ve heard some justify a release based on their view of the sensitivity of their story’s content with no understanding of the effect the release may have on the intelligence source at the heart of the story. . . [W]he the media claims an oversight role on clandestine operations, it moves that clandestine operation into an arena where we cannot clarify, we cannot explain, we cannot defend our actions without doing even further damage to our national security.

It’s important–as I say this, it’s important to bear in mind that my agency is subject to another oversight mechanism that has full access to our operations and takes our security requirements into account, it’s your representatives in Congress.

George Tenet and Porter Goss, George Bush’s previous CIA directors, never said anything nearly as sustained or lucid on this vital subject–and they and we paid for their silence with an accelerating flow of leaks appearing in the media. It is unlikely that Hayden’s caution will be heeded by many in the press, least of all at the New York Times. But the issue, at least, has finally been joined in a serious way by the Bush administration.


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