Paul Pillar

Leaky Thinking About Secrecy

The leadership of the House and Senate intelligence committees issued a joint statement Wednesday that expressed concern over recent leaks of information about sensitive activities overseas, called on the executive branch to do more to detect and deter leaks, and declared an intention to consider new legislation that somehow would help to combat leaking. The committees summoned Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI director Robert Mueller to discuss the matter on Thursday, and there is talk about the possible need for a special counsel. I wish the committees well. If anyone has any good ideas for new procedures or penalties to ameliorate the problem, bravo. But as the committee leaders put it with understatement, “the problem of leaks of classified information is not new.” The sad fact is that most leaks are inherently difficult to investigate and police. Meanwhile, the revelations and accusations that stimulated this statement involve some misconceptions about government secrecy and some unhelpful conflation of different issues.

Even though Democratic and Republican leaders agreed on the committee statement, the issue of recent revelations about national-security matters has been, like just about everything else in Washington, politicized. With a Democratic administration in office, it has been the Republicans' turn to accuse the administration of disclosing national-security accomplishments as a way of burnishing President Obama's public image in an election year—which the president forcefully denied in comments to reporters on Friday. The previous Republican administration was no stranger to politically motivated disclosure, the most notorious example of which involved revelations about the identity and status of a covert CIA officer as part of an effort to discredit the message from her retired ambassador husband, who had written publicly about the phoniness of one aspect of the Bush administration's public brief about Iraq.

In one of the recent cases, the Obama administration held a conference call with outside commentators about a foiled terrorist plot but failed to inform the intelligence committees about the plot until after it was reported in the media. This was an embarrassing misstep that no doubt accounts for the Democratic as well as Republican leaders signing on to the sort of statement the intelligence committees released.

Public revelations reflect a highly selective slice of national-security matters, but the selection is often not a matter of puffery about an administration's accomplishments or other high-level manipulation. Failures are more likely than successes to become publicly known, given the inherently more visible public footprint of many failures. And many more revelations reflect the personal agenda (or neuroses, or resentments) of an individual leaker.

The fact that leaks reflect the individual agendas of misfits or anyone else with the moxie to violate the rules is one reason that leaks are bad. They have nothing to do with public accountability, or at least any form of accountability that is sufficiently orderly and dedicated to the nation's interest to be worthy of that term. Meanwhile, there is all the other damage that is caused to work performed on behalf of national security, from impeding the conduct of diplomacy to blowing sensitive military or intelligence operations. And yet, leakers sometimes get viewed as laudable whistle-blowers. Maybe the traditional American aversion to secrecy among their rulers has something to do with it.

The interests of the press, for which leaks are lifeblood, have a lot to do with it. The press's dependence on leaks naturally affects the way the press treats leaks as a subject of its reporting. A front-page piece by Scott Shane of the New York Times about secrecy brands as “inconsistency” and “contradictory behavior” the aggressive prosecution of leakers by the administration led by Mr. Obama, who while a candidate denounced his predecessor's secret prisons and coercive interrogation techniques. There is nothing contradictory or inconsistent about it. The use of torture should not have been a private prerogative of the executive branch, but the proper and most reliable check against this is oversight by the people's representatives in Congress, not the random initiative of some disgruntled rule-breaker. A problem was that the briefings on this subject by the Bush administration were so constricted that proper oversight was impeded.

There are serious issues of public accountability and policy direction that involve the matters that have been the focus of recent revelations. One involves targeted killings through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Although many details of such operations are appropriately kept secret—and random revelations of the details are not helpful—the public and the Congress still know too little about the criteria applied to such operations and the calculations about how they do or do not serve the variety of national interests at stake. Attention is needed not to juicy details but to higher-order policy (and legal and moral) considerations.

Then there is the waging of cyberwar. Leaks of the sort that underlie David Sanger's remarkable reporting on this subject are also damaging, and to the extent the intelligence committee leaders' statement is a response to these particular leaks, it is an appropriate response. But cyberwar is war. That is how the United States treats it with respect to how responsibilities for it are organized in the Department of Defense. And war, of all things, should not be initiated and conducted as a private prerogative of the executive branch. To do so is a serious offense to our constitutional order.

The executive and legislative branches have a lot of work to do about these matters. Leakers have nothing to contribute to that work except more damage and confusion.