Within a few weeks, fired CIA officer Mary McCarthy will take her place in the pantheon of liberal heroes. Democratic politicians, left-leaning pundits and analysts in the drive-by media will hail her "courage" in exposing secret CIA prisons in eastern Europe, and providing that information to the Washington Post. There will almost certainly be a book and movie deal; I'm sure Joe Wilson's literary agent will be in touch, if he hasn't called already. However, timing for those media events will probably depend on whether Ms. McCarthy spends any time in jail for her "disclosures."
Of course, the real issue in the McCarthy scandal is how much damage her leak caused to national security. CIA officials have already stated that the disclosure caused "significant" damage to intelligence collection and analysis efforts, and strained relations with the countries that allowed the CIA to operate terrorist prisons on their soil. We'll probably never know the real extent of the damage, and that's just as well. As we've stated, on numerous occasions, a democracy must have some secrets, information that is so vital that it must be protected at any cost.
Consider the example of Ultra, the top secret WWII code-breaking operation initiated by the British that (eventually) included the U.S. as well. Ultra allowed the Allies to read virtually all German message traffic; as a result, we often knew what the Germans were going to do in advance. Ultra was, quite literally, the secret that won the war. It was protected at great cost--often measured in lives. During the German "Blitz" of 1940, Ultra revealed that the Luftwaffe was planning a massive bombing raid on the city of Coventry. Winston Churchill could have ordered the evacuation of the city to save lives, but that action might have compromised the existence of Ultra. The city's population remained in place, the Germans carried out their raid, and more than 1,000 British civilians died. But Ultra remained secure, and as a result, thousands of Allied lives were saved over the course of the war.
Playing fast and loose with national secrets carries a steep price. While the media often claims that classified "scoops" don't jeopardize our security, there is ample evidence to the contrary. We wrote about the cumulative impact of intelligence leaks to the press a few months back, noting an intel study that assessed the effects of sensitive disclosures over the past decade. I had a chance to review the study a few years back. I won't go into the details--nor will I reveal the identity of its author--but its revelations were stunning. The "leak" of classified information may cause a media tempest for a few days (and political ramifications for a season), but the ultimate, security impact is measured in compromised programs, blown sources, heightened enemy deception efforts and decreased collection through our intel sources and methods. Today, perhaps more than ever, the unauthorized disclosure of intel information results in the possibility of more surprise attacks down the road. In the most extreme instances, the disclosure of vital secrets could even jeopardize our national survival.
On FNC this morning, an anchor-ette opined that the McCarthy episode (and the potential prosecution of journalists who publish classified information) might have a "chilling" effect on the news media's ability to do its job, and the public's right to know. From my perspective, the leaking of classified information and a reduced ability to predict (and deter) future attacks is even more chilling.