Leaks, National Security, and Freedom of the Press

A new book-length study of leaks of classified information published by the Defense Intelligence Agency’s National Intelligence University contends that “the tension between maintaining national security secrets and the public’s right to know cannot be ‘solved’, but can be better understood and more intelligently managed.”

“Who Watches the Watchmen?” by Gary Ross explores the phenomenon of leaks from multiple angles, including their history, their prevalence and their consequences.  Most interestingly, he considers the diverse motivations of leakers and of the reporters who solicit, receive and publish their disclosures.  Some of these he finds defensible, and others not.

In the end, he advises that government officials should engage members of the media in a constructive dialog in order to avert the worst consequences of leaks.

“Proactively engaging with the media to examine the costs and benefits associated with unauthorized disclosures represents the greatest potential for reducing the perceived harm to national security,” Mr. Ross writes.

By contrast, “Maintaining the status quo or attempting to legislate a solution both have proven to be ineffective methods for resolving the dilemma. True change can only occur if the Executive Branch is willing to invest the time and resources necessary to implement an approach focused on engagement with the media.”

This is a congenial conclusion, which implies that punitive new legislation can be avoided and that remaining differences between reporters and government officials can be fruitfully discussed.

But it arguably misapprehends the harsh new policy landscape in the wake of the WikiLeaks episode (which is also discussed in the book).  The status quo has been transformed in response to WikiLeaks in two ways that are unfavorable to leakers, justified or unjustified.

First, the threat of unauthorized disclosures has been elevated in the view of government officials to one of “the most menacing foreign intelligence threats in the next two to three years.”  In January 31 testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, DNI James R. Clapper said that unauthorized disclosures of classified information had “caused significant damage to US interests.” Further, he said, “We assess that trusted insiders using their access for malicious intent represent one of today’s primary threats to US classified networks.”  “Engagement with the media” will not be the main response to such threats.

And second, WikiLeaks, which targeted legitimate and illegitimate secrets with equal vigor, has inspired and accelerated the development of new forensic tools and methods to identify the sources of unauthorized disclosures.  Internal surveillance of classified networks is set to grow, with new mechanisms for tracking and auditing online activity by government employees.  Whatever else might be true, the status quo of a few years ago has been left behind.

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