A significant mismatch of “policy” with “problem” arose yesterday in a speech by James Clapper, Obama’s new director of national intelligence (DNI), addressed to the audience of a Washington think tank. This AFP report summarizes Clapper’s thesis (emphasis added):
US President Barack Obama is full of “angst” over a “hemorrhage” of leaks of sensitive intelligence from government officials, the director of national intelligence said on Wednesday.
James Clapper, the new chief of the country’s spy services, also said that intelligence agencies would have to be more restrained about sharing information with each other as a result of the leaks, citing the recent release of secret files on the Afghan war by the WikiLeaks website.
To begin with, the allusion to WikiLeaks is a political strawman. Interagency intelligence sharing wasn’t the point of vulnerability in that leak, which involved a soldier leaking the tactical Army intelligence to which he had routine access. Limiting information sharing between agencies won’t stop that kind of leak. Nor is it the key to stopping the practice of higher-level political leaking. The political leakers of the George W. Bush years leaked classified information that was within their own agencies’ purview.
This policy gambit doesn’t compute. When the Clinton administration solidified the famous “wall” between FBI and CIA intelligence, the putative purpose was to protect civil liberties. The policy went too far, but it was at least grounded in an idea with some political merit. Americans should be protected against intelligence agencies sharing information about them outside the constraints of civil law.
But now the DNI wants to limit information sharing between agencies as a means of addressing the problem of leaks. There are not enough clichés to adequately express how absurd this is. There’s no evidence that information sharing, per se, is even the problem. Meanwhile, the alternative of investigating and prosecuting the leaks, as painfully and inconveniently as necessary to actually discourage them, doesn’t seem to occur to anyone. The leakers are, after all, committing felonies every time they leak the classified information they have sworn — on pain of punishment under federal law — to keep secure.
There is little appetite in Washington for prosecution and punishment, because political partisans, including members of Congress, find leaks a convenience. It’s valid, moreover, to point out that clamping down on leaks could be abused by an administration inclined to be overly secretive about policy in general. These countervailing factors, along with the presumptive privilege enjoyed by the media, will always discourage the systematic prosecution of leakers.
But reverting to a pre-9/11 posture respecting information sharing is too high a price to pay for the convenience of leaving these entrenched assumptions undisturbed, especially when information sharing isn’t the root of the problem in the first place. Congress needs to inquire promptly into the policy trend previewed this week by Clapper. It doesn’t make sense. Its dangers for the American people are obvious — and we can only hope that, as a signal of the Obama administration’s intentions, “dumb” is the worst thing it is.