J. William Leonard, the director of the Information Security Oversight Office, is resigning from that position effective January 2008, leaving a significant void in the fragile mechanism for overseeing the government’s national security classification system.
Since becoming ISOO director in 2002, Mr. Leonard has been the preeminent official spokesman for a credible classification policy, which means he has also been an outspoken critic of classification practice as it actually exists.
“To be effective, the classification process is a tool that must be wielded with precision,” Mr. Leonard said last year (pdf).
Despite this fact, he added, “few, if any, both within and outside Government, would deny that too much of the information produced by our agencies is classified.”
“The integrity of the security classification program is essential to our nation’s continued well-being. The consequences of failure are too high.”
In pursuit of that integrity earlier this year, Mr. Leonard famously challenged the Office of the Vice President, which decided in 2003 that it would no longer submit to longstanding classification oversight procedures.
After the Federation of American Scientists filed a formal complaint concerning the OVP’s non-compliance, Mr. Leonard urged Cheney aide David Addington to reconsider its position. When Addington ignored the request, Mr. Leonard exercised his authority to raise the issue with the Attorney General, who is obliged by the executive order on classification to render an interpretation of the order’s requirements.
Although no response from the Attorney General was forthcoming, the episode turned the Vice President and his unchecked secrecy into an object of public ridicule. (See “Vice President Makes Secrecy Policy a Joke (Literally),” Secrecy News, June 26, 2007).
Mr. Leonard’s unexpected resignation naturally invites speculation that the friction between him and the Office of Vice President was a factor in his departure. However, his associates say there is no specific evidence of that.
As a career security professional, Mr. Leonard has been immune to bluster and to bogus national security claims. He could not be intimidated by the cult of secrecy, since he was practically a founding member of it. As ISOO director, he conducted himself with dignity and with respect for the citizens and the national security that he served. It’s hard to imagine who will replace him.