The New York Times reported Monday that General David Petraeus issued a secret directive in September, expanding covert military operations in the Middle East. The author, Mark Mazzetti, states that the Times’ staff has viewed a copy of the document. Preparation for the article included speaking to government officials who discussed its contents only on condition of anonymity, because it’s classified.
Fortunately, our information security usually works better than this. Leaks of national-security secrets are the exception and not the rule. But once again, someone on the government payroll, with a clearance, and with knowledge of classified current operations, has broken the law by disclosing what he knows to unauthorized recipients in the press.
It’s unlikely that we will be told someday that the leaker of the Petraeus directive took action because of sleepless nights and professional agony, as Newsweek reported in 2008 of one warrantless-wiretapping leaker who called the New York Times in 2004. In the case of the Petraeus directive, there is no apparent reason for a leaker to be motivated by concern about government overreach or civil rights. Perhaps the motive is disagreement with the policy.
But these leakers aren’t romantic heroes; they are people breaking their government’s security oaths. Thomas Tamm, the known wiretapping leaker, has been investigated (and lionized by the left) but never prosecuted. Yet it’s clear he broke his security oath by going to the media. It’s also clear from the Newsweek story that he came nowhere near exhausting his lawful options for registering concern about the wiretapping program. He apparently talked to a former colleague on the Senate Judiciary Committee — but not to his full chain of command at the Justice Department, to the Justice Department Inspector General, or to the intelligence oversight committee of either house of Congress.
James Risen, the Times reporter who broke the wiretapping story, was subpoenaed by Eric Holder last month to disclose the government sources for another of his classified revelations: this one involving information about U.S. efforts against Iran in his 2006 book State of War. Risen has refused to comply. His fate is uncertain; presumably, he might be jailed for contempt of court as Judith Miller was in the Valerie Plame Wilson case.
Miller ultimately agreed to testify after obtaining immunity. While the Plame Wilson case is not the best example of the real problems created by national-security leaks, the outcome with Miller was the right one for more genuinely damaging cases. The “journalist shield” exception should not protect government leakers who are committing felonies by the very act of disclosing classified information to the press. Journalists should have to tell the authorities who they are.