Congress is moving to stem leaks to the media. The Senate Intelligence Committee recently drafted legislation that would bar former intelligence officials from speaking to news organizations or working for them after leaving their government posts. But more action is needed: Congress should follow the legislatures of other leading democracies and pass an official state-secrets act. It not only would limit the leakers but also prevent the media from publishing information that is likely to cause major damage to national security.
Ever since the Supreme Court allowed The New York Times and Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, the media has assumed that nobody can stop it from publishing whatever information it acquires. The court then merely established that, “any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity” and that the government “thus carries a heavy burden of showing justification for the imposition of such a restraint.” However damaging recent leaks may have been—when the lives of dozens of CIA agents were directly threatened and our ability to stop a nuclear attack from Iran has been undermined—the “burden” has been deemed too light, and the freedom of the press has been allowed to trump national security.
The Iran situation is particularly illuminating. Both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama repeatedly have declared that an Iran equipped with nuclear arms is “unacceptable.” In 2007, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate declared that “by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapons design and weaponization work.” Now the Obama administration seems to draw the line at a decision by Iran to actually assemble a bomb. The Washington Post recently quoted a senior U.S. official as stating that, “there is confidence that we would see activity indicating that a decision had been made.”
But our ability to “see” such a decision in the making has been compromised though a recent leak, which revealed that U.S. government agencies have developed the capacity to control the microphones and cameras of computers at any place and any time. One must assume that, as a result, leaders in Tehran will make their decisions not merely in a secure room but in one that has neither computers nor phones—and maybe not even a toaster. Hence, this particular leak may have significantly undermined our capacity to discover Iran’s decision to dart forward and assemble a bomb and thus vastly increased the challenge we face in stopping such weaponization.
The Economist recently revealed that the CIA is training special forces in Jordan to grab Syria’s chemical weapons if they were about to fall into the hands of terrorists or were about to be used against the rebels. I cannot see what the readers of that magazine have gained from knowing about this mission before it is carried out (if it ever is), but I can see major damage to U.S. core interests and the people of Syria if, as a result, Assad or the terrorists finds out what specific countermeasures they should watch for. When the damage of a publication can be that significant, there should be ways to prevent it.