Saturday, December 31, 2005

A Nice Start, But...

Conservative bloggers have been encouraged by news that the Justice Department is now investigating recent leaks of classified information to the press, namely the disclosure of the NSA domestic surveillance program, and the existence of CIA detention facilities in Eastern Europe.

The MSM has been playing fast and loose with sensitive information for years, aided by intelligence insiders who leak for a variety of reasons. Some are disgruntled employees, passed over for promotion or merit bonuses. Others vehemently disagree with the President Bush's handling of the War on Terror, and view their actions as striking a blow against an "evil" administration. Others are upset with recent leadership changes at intelligence agencies (namely the CIA), and efforts to reign in rogue elements within those organizations.

Whatever their motive, the MSM couldn't publish their "exclusives" without help from leakers, who break the law whenever the divulge classified information. All government personnel with a security clearance sign non-disclosure agreements which spell out the potential penalties for leaking sensitive information.

You'll note my use of the word "potential." As we have pointed out before, few leakers are ever caught, let alone punished. In some cases, the leaks are "inside" jobs, information divulged by administration officials to advance a particular theme or policy. In other situations, the leakers find ways to effectively cover their tracks, or investigators are unable to use certain techniques (such as polygraphs) to find the source of a leak. Surprisingly, polygraphs are not a standard practice throughout the intelligence community; while they are used routinely at both the CIA and NSA, they are used less often at the Defense Intelligence Agency and only rarely in military intelligence circles. Without a polygraph (or a clear paper trail), it is often difficult to pin a leak on a particular individual.

Regrettably, it's also now easier to leak that ever before. With the advent of INTELINK (the intelligence community's intranet), thousands of personnel have access to vast amounts of information, including highly sensitive data classified at the Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (SCI) level. While INTELINK is a boon to intelligence personnel, it also makes it convenient for leakers to point, click and print a classified document, and pass it to a member of the press. And amazingly, security at some intelligence facilities is surprisingly lax; end-of-the day searches of personnel leaving their offices are rare, so the chances of a leaker being caught are remote.

Over the past decade, there have been more than 600 referrals to the Justice Department for leaks of classified information. During the same period, there were no successful prosecutions for leak-associated crimes. Those "odds" hardly discourage leakers, since the chances of being caught, let alone punished, are very, very remote.

Secrets are necessary for the survival of a democracy, so the probe of these recent leaks is a step in the right direction. But find the source--and punishing the leakers--is another proposition. And, since the NSA and CIA prison disclosures were "good leaks" from the MSM's perspective, they will fight the Justice Department probe on every legal front.

We've been down this road countless times before, and the government's track record in catching leakers is less-than-impressive. Will the NSA and CIA cases be any different? We can only hope so--but don't get your hopes up.

A final note: during my spook days, I saw a classified analysis of the impact of media leaks over the past ten years. The impact of these disclosures--in terms of blown sources and lost intel information--was absolutely staggering. The senior official who prepared the report is now retiring. I hope he will publish his unclassified version of the study in the near future. The public needs to know the real impact when classified information finds its way into print or broadcast, with no regard for the security consequences.


Wanderlust said...

So Ames and Hanssen got busted for spying against the CIA and FBI, respectively...leakers whose handoffs of classified information to the Russians cost scores of lives, and likely millions of dollars in wasted operating costs.

Yet NYT and WAPO (among others) think that their "good" revelations of classified information in the MSM won't hurt anyone but Dubya.


Do they not understand that each leak, in and of itself, may not reveal much - but that a multitude of leaks can provide a composite view of the "big picture" that has devastating consequences for life, property, and security???

Tell them, spook86. As loud as you can.

Demonstrate that, taken together, the efforts of three individuals - John Walker, Aldrich Ames, and Robert Hanssen - allowed enough intel to pass to our enemies to cost so many lost lives, and (adding Walker to the mix) billions of dollars.

But, hey. BDS sufferers don't give a damn about anyone's life, as long as they can attack Bush, right?

/rant off

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Unknown said...

The core problem with unauthorized disclosures is the lack of an effective method for whistleblowers to step outside of the SSCI organizations with complaints about excesses or violations of the law to reach Congressional oversight. Going through the chain of command on a policy issue or disagreement is career-ending option.