The trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, which ended last Tuesday with his conviction of lying to FBI agents and a grand jury investigating a news leak revealing the identity of a CIA operative, put the spotlight on the way journalists in Washington get secret information from sources. A parade of journalists and government officials testified about how classified information makes its way into the news media on a frequent and almost routine basis.
Reporters cast themselves as defenders of the public's right to know by exposing government secrets. Some have criticized the prosecution of Libby because they fear it will make it harder to get other officials to leak secret information.
But hard as it is to accept in an open society that cherishes freedom and an informed public, government secrecy is sometimes necessary. This is particularly true in intelligence gathering and analysis, which must operate secretly to be effective. Unfortunately, intelligence secrets today are under assault in the United States.
In movie thrillers, terrorists and foreign agents spying on America go to great lengths to get secret information. They plant hidden microphones and cameras, pay bribes to American officials, break into offices to steal documents, hack into government computer systems, and engage in dramatic gun battles and car chases.
But in the real world, spying can be much easier. The enemies of America can simply pick up a newspaper or magazine, turn on the TV, or go on the Internet to learn secret information leaked to the news media by government officials.
For years, the U.S. news media have served as an open vault of classified information on U.S. intelligence collection sources and methods. The problem is worse now than ever, given the scope and seriousness of leaks coupled with the power of electronic dissemination and Internet search engines. Foreign intelligence services and terrorists are voracious and close viewers and readers of the U.S. media and are keenly alert to revelations of U.S. classified information.
Stanislav Lunev, a former Russian military intelligence officer, wrote in 1998: "I was amazed — and Moscow was very appreciative — at how many times I found very sensitive information in American newspapers. In my view, Americans tend to care more about scooping their competition than about national security, which made my job easier."
Government leakers and the journalists who publish the classified intelligence information they provide can sometimes do the equivalent work of spies. While their motives certainly differ, the effects of their disclosures can be the same.
If someone provides classified information about a secret U.S. government terrorist surveillance program clandestinely to a single foreign nation or terrorist group, he would probably be prosecuted for espionage. But if a journalist publishes or broadcasts the same material so all the enemies of the United States can see it — potentially causing a lot more harm — he would almost certainly go unpunished.
Why the different treatment for disclosing the same intelligence? The government simply lacks the will to enforce its existing laws to protect U.S. secrets and to enact new laws affecting media dissemination of the most secret material.
When U.S. intelligence secrecy is breached, foreign targets learn about intelligence techniques and operations and often develop denial and deception countermeasures. As a result, the effectiveness of intelligence declines, to the detriment of the national security policymakers, the U.S. military and American public safety.
Journalists who publish or broadcast leaked information about secret intelligence routinely deny they are helping America's enemies, and many sincerely believe this. But the view that leaks really do not do much harm is a myth. Unfortunately, it is usually difficult to prove intelligence leaks do grave harm because nearly all the compelling evidence is itself secret and can't be revealed.
Leaks cause a great deal of harm to intelligence effectiveness against priority national security issues, including terrorism. This is principally because the news media have become a major source for sensitive information for U.S. adversaries about what U.S. intelligence agencies know, what they do and how they do it.
In the last 10 years there have been literally hundreds of media leaks of CIA information that have damaged sources and methods and the ability to collect intelligence. Leaks that have damaged the National Security Agency's signals intelligence sources and methods also number in the hundreds in recent years.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has experienced numerous leaks that have damaged U.S. imagery collection effectiveness. Many dozens of leaks on the activities and programs of the National Reconnaissance Office have helped foreign adversaries develop countermeasures to spaceborne collection operations. And the Defense Intelligence Agency and the military services have also suffered collection losses as a result of media leaks.
It is impossible to measure the damage done to U.S. intelligence through each of these leaks, but knowledgeable specialists assess the cumulative impact as significant. Some losses are permanent and irreversible. Others can be recovered, though sometimes only partially and at great cost. The intelligence community faces improved foreign countermeasures as adversaries use leaks to expand their understanding of U.S. intelligence.
In recent years, all intelligence agencies have lost important collection capabilities against priority requirements across the board, including against high-value terrorist targets. These losses have impaired human operations, signals intelligence and imagery collection. And this has deprived U.S. analysts and policymakers of critical information unavailable anywhere else.
We need to recognize that sensitive intelligence information is classified by the U.S. government for good reasons — precisely because its protection is essential to the nation's security. But the legal protections to safeguard secret intelligence information are woefully insufficient, and not nearly as good as those we provide to other government or government-protected information — such as financial and census data, insider trading for securities and even crop estimates.
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, America's intelligence and law enforcement agencies were criticized repeatedly for failing to "connect the dots" of evidence to anticipate that the deadly attacks were imminent.
But before dots can be connected, they need to be collected, as happened in Britain in August when a plot to destroy trans-Atlantic airliners was discovered and stopped. The alleged plotters were arrested because British authorities secretly tracked them and learned of the plot before it could be executed.
Good intelligence grounded in secrecy is crucial to the success of such vital efforts to protect the national security.
James B. Bruce is a senior analyst with the Intelligence Policy Center at the RAND Corporation.
Copyright © 2007 News World Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times. This reprint does not constitute or imply any endorsement or sponsorship of any product, service, company or organization. Visit our web site at www.washingtontimes.com.
This commentary originally appeared in Washington Times on March 11, 2007. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.