Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Don't Get Your Hopes Up

According to the Washington Post, U.S. intelligence officials will "investigate" allegations that someone in the government improperly leaked a secretly-obtained Al Qaida propaganda tape, alerting the terror group to a gap in its computer security that has since been secured.

Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence, said officials are looking into the leak allegation by the SITE Intelligence Group, which passed the video on to the White House and the director of national intelligence's office before its leak.

"At this point, we don't think there was a leak from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or the National Counterterrorism Center," Feinstein said.

Mr. Feinstein's comments are essentially a rehash of what's already been said about the tape controversy. In bureaucrat-speak, his comments could be translated as "We'll go through the motions, but there's really no interest (or incentive) to find the leaker."

We base that observation on several factors. First, as we've noted in previous posts, the record of the intelligence community and the Justice Department in locating (and punishing) leakers is laughable. Over a 10-year period, beginning in the mid-1990s, there were more than 500 inquiries into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, which often would up in the media. The number of leakers brought to justice? Approximately zero. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find in the intelligence or security apparatus that was internally disciplined or censured during that period.

The sad fact is that lots of people--too many of them--are willing to disclose classified information, for a variety of reasons. Administration officials leak to support their agenda; their opponents do it for the same reason. Others disclose sensitive data to embarrass rival agencies while enhancing their own standing in budget battles and bureaucratic turf wars. Other leaks are aimed at foreign governments, letting them know that the U.S. is aware of their activities, and prepared to take action, if necessary.

In today's pervasive "leak culture," it's little wonder that offenders go unpunished. The FBI--which is responsible for investigating these crimes--has admitted that its probes usually hit a dead end because it receives little cooperation from the intel community. With the leak already on the front page of The New York Times or WaPo (and its agenda purpose satisfied), there's little reason to cooperate with the FBI. Memories get fuzzy, files disappear, and stories from possible suspects suddenly match. After a few months, the inquiry loses steam and the matter is quietly dropped.

And, lest we forget, these are investigations based on the actual disclosure of classified information. In the matter of the SITE tape, there is ample evidence that the video was never classified. SITE obtained the tape clandestinely and asked government officials to keep it SECRET, but (so far) there's no indication that the bin Laden video was ever classified. Indeed, how can you stamp "Secret" on a product that was available to the company's subscribers, and was discussed by other commercial intel firms--and media outlets--before SITE passed it along to the intel community?

To fill the bureaucratic "square," there will be something of an inquiry into how the SITE tape made its way from the bureaucracy to ABC News. But if you're expecting a hard-hitting investigation that actually fingers the culprit(s), you'll be sorely disappointed. Besides, there are far more serious--and damaging--leaks that merit a serious review, and genuine punishment for the offenders. Put another way: if we can't find (and sanction) the "real" leakers, we shouldn't get too excited over disclosure of an Al Qaida tape that was obtained "outside" intelligence channels.


Max Lybbert said...

I read somewhere that SITE takes credit for passing on the tape on day X, but that the ABC transcript was for release one day before then. So I don't think SITE deserves credit for finding the video.

And whoever leaked the information is personally responsible for the loss of Obelisk.

Storms24 said...

SITE, although producing some very good work, is still a private company with very limited resources. I have to believe that whatever "scoop" they think they had actually pales in comparison to the products, resources & expertise of our friends at NSA, DIA, AIA, etc...

Finally, I think there has been too little consideration given to what the enemy has lost: systematically shutting down supporting website and losing access to hijacked web servers represents a huge loss of the ability to communicate propoganda (and operational instructions). Many of those communication nodes took months to build - and will likely take at least that long to rebuild. Though the rebuild will likely include an attempt at better security measures and "below radar" features, operators & supporters will be force to use alternative (and less secure) routes & avenues...