Sunday, February 13, 2005

Droning On...

The big story in today's Washington Post was the revelation that the U.S. is using surveillance drones to keep tabs on Iran's nuclear program. According to the Post, we've been operating Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) over Iranian nuclear sites for the past year, much to Tehran's consternation. Iran has reportedly filed a diplomatic protest over the reconnaissance missions (yawn), but the U.S. has no plans to halt the flights.

Actually, this revelation shouldn't surprise anyone with a better grip on world events than, say, Michael Moore. Iran's nuclear program is the #1 security concern in the Middle East; with our extensive military presence in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq, we now have the ability to maintain a closer watch on Iran's nuclear facilities, and monitor their efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Without the UAVs, we'd be forced to rely on stand-off intelligence assets (read: satellites) to image Tehran's nuclear sites. And, contrary to popular belief, imagery satellites don't provide round-the-clock coverage. More troubling, our adversaries--including Iran--have become much more adept at predicting when our satellites pass overhead, and curtailing activity during that period.

The fact that we're flying UAVs over Iran's nuclear sites doesn't bother me. In fact, I'm encouraged. If the Iranian nuclear program is the threat we claim, then we should use our full range of assets to monitor activity and the status of critical facilities. However, as a former spook, I'm more disturbed by the disclosure of another sensitive, close-hold program. True, the Iranians already had some idea that we were sending UAVs over their territory, but the WaPo (and its sources) removed any lingering doubts Tehran might have had. According to press reports, Iranian air defense commanders had reported possible UFOs (paging Art Bell) and unexplained lights in the sky in recent months, events now ascribed to the UAV flights. With a little further research, the Iranians will probably get a better feel for our operational patterns, reduce activity during likely imaging windows, and redouble their efforts to shoot down our drones. The likely result? Decreased collection, less information, and more questions about what Iran is really up to.

I don't know who leaked the story to the Post; the list of potential suspects is lengthy. Administration officials trying to send a signal to Iran; anti-Bush elements within the intelligence community trying to embarass the administration (again), or some mid-level official offering a little too much information in a background briefing, or just old-fashioned digging by Post reporters. But whatever the source, this "scoop" will have consequences for those trying to monitor Iran's nuclear program.

Make no mistake: Washington is a town that leaks like a seive, with little concern for anything beyond short-term political gains. Even the Bush Administration, with its legendary discipline and disdain for leaks, has been known to play the game. However, it's time to address the consequences of this "game" and look for ways to handle the leak problem.

Are leaks a problem? You be the judge. Over the past 10 years, the FBI has reportedly investigated more than 600 "inadvertent" disclosures of classified information from various government agencies. And how many leakers have been punished? None, nada, zero, zip. So clearly, those that leak classified information have little reason to fear the frozen wheels of justice.

Meanwhile, the leaks keep coming and we pay the price. Before I retired from the intelligence community, I reviewed a report from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), which analyzes information collected by our spy satellites. I won't go into the details of the report, because I'm still bound by confidentiality agreements, and I believe some secrets must be kept. Suffice it to say, the NGA report detailed serious losses in intelligence collection due to leaks during a single year. Multiply that effect over the past 10-15 years, and you've got some idea of the problem facing the intelligence community.

I'll discuss the leak problem in greater detail a bit later...for now, let's just say I'm encouraged by efforts to prosecute William Arkin, the Los Angeles Times military "columnist" who recently "outed" a couple of highly classified military operations. Hugh Hewitt, always ahead of the curve, has an excellent take on Mr. Arkin and his views on national security, in a recent column for The Weekly Standard.

One final thought: I fully support freedom of the press, a sentiment that is shared across the intelligence community. But I am opposed to leaks that damage our intelligence collection efforts, and threaten national security. If we want to win the War on Terror, we must learn to keep our mouths shut--at least part of the time. Punishing those who arbitrarily leak, print or broadcast--with no regard for the consequences--would be a good way to encourage such behavior.

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