Some Unauthorized Disclosures of Classified Info Are Routine

The brewing controversy over leaks of classified information presumes that disclosures of classified information to unauthorized persons are always impermissible and undesirable.  But that presumption does not correspond precisely to the reality of government operations as they are conducted in practice.

The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees said last week that they would work “to ensure that criminal and administrative measures are taken each time sensitive information is improperly disclosed.”

In fact, however, classified information is frequently disclosed at the interface between national security agencies and the news media.  This is not necessarily a surreptitious or underhanded process.  Rather, though it is not often discussed, it is how the system normally functions.

“I refer to classified information a lot,” admitted then-Pentagon press secretary Kenneth Bacon at a November 2000 press briefing, when asked whether all of his statements from the podium were unclassified.

“There are certain questions that I can only answer by referring to classified information,” Mr. Bacon said at that time, adding that “I do this carefully, after consultation with our intelligence authorities, to make sure that I don’t answer questions in a way that causes any problems.”

This type of routine public discussion of classified information would have been obstructed if there were a law that categorically prohibited all unauthorized disclosures of classified information.  When Congress passed such a measure in 2000, Mr. Bacon and other executive branch officials quietly opposed it, and it was ultimately vetoed by President Clinton.

“There are certain types of questions that can only be answered with references to classified information,” Mr. Bacon told reporters following the presidential veto.  “One of the concerns that I and other spokespeople had [about the vetoed provision was that] it would prevent reference to classified information in answering everyday questions.”

Thus, the peculiar reality is that certain officials routinely take it upon themselves to discuss classified information with unauthorized persons.  They do so not to subvert policy but to explain it, to defend it and to execute it.  Though it may seem counterintuitive (and may in fact violate formal procedures), sometimes officials will even reveal currently classified information in order to enhance security.

Veteran aerospace journalist Craig Covault wrote an article last week in which he recalled once such incident in the 1970s.  At that time Mr. Covault was the space technology editor at Aviation Week, which was sometimes referred to as “Aviation Leak” because of the prevalence of (actual or purported) classified information in its pages.  In the course of his reporting, Mr. Covault learned some details about the KH-11 intelligence satellite shortly following its first launch in December 1976.  After he queried Air Force public affairs about the matter, he received an urgent summons to discuss it that afternoon with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  As he described it:

“I showed up at the Pentagon at the appointed time and was taken up to the suite of offices used by Joint Chiefs Of Staff, then ushered into the office of Air Force General David Jones, a four star that had commanded the Strategic Air Command before becoming Chairman. My escort then departed and it was just Jones and myself left to discuss this issue.”

“He said he was familiar with my coverage then asked ‘what have you got?’ I explained in significant detail what sources had told me about the new reconnaissance system.”

“‘You are exactly right’ said Jones, ‘and now I am going to give you the reasons why we request that you not publish’.”

“He then cited specific examples where the Soviets were not taking any measures to conceal what they were doing as this first KH-11 approached and passed overhead. Unlike the KH-9s, they did not realize yet that this was a high resolution imaging spacecraft that could see people, and tell if they were carrying a lunchbox or not.”

“Jones said the Soviets were leaving missile silo doors open allowing us to ‘look right in’ and keeping their own new secret aircraft in the open.  If I published, it would ruin a major U. S. intelligence advantage. Jones had clearly demonstrated that no articles on the KH-11 should be written at that time so I agreed to his request to hold.”

“And on the way out he asked. ‘Now is there anything I can do for you?’”

“There was certainly no quid pro quo in my mind for this discussion, so his question was a surprise. But when he asked that, I told him I had not received any consistent backgrounders on the Soviet space program. ‘You will have them now,’ Gen. Jones said, and for the next two years I received classified backgrounders on the Soviet space program at the Defense Intelligence Agency.”

This is a remarkable anecdote in several respects.  Significantly, General Jones did not declassify the information about the KH-11 satellite, which remained highly classified.  Instead, he simply revealed it to Mr. Covault, an uncleared reporter, even though this was technically inconsistent with procedures in effect then and now.  Gen. Jones did not insist that Mr. Covault sign a non-disclosure agreement, or that he submit his work to some kind of prepublication review.  Rather, he simply argued the case for secrecy on the merits, and he succeeded in persuading Mr. Covault not to publish the information in question, to the presumptive benefit of national security.  (On another occasion described by Mr. Covault in the same article, he found the government’s request not to publish unpersuasive and disregarded it.)

Was General Jones guilty of “leaking” information to Mr. Covault?  Should the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been fired or sent to prison for his actions?  He certainly disclosed highly classified information to an unauthorized person, and he did so not once but repeatedly through the ongoing classified briefings that he arranged for Mr. Covault.

In other respects, though, this story is quite unremarkable.  Many national security reporters who write about classified government activities and seek a response from a government spokesman will have a similar (though perhaps less dramatic) tale to tell.

If members of Congress are determined to impose punitive measures “each time” that classified information is disclosed, then they will be confusing means (secrecy) and ends (security).  They run the risk of turning an already sluggish classification system into one that is so rigid as to be self-defeating.

There is no doubt such a thing as a wrongful and unlawful disclosure of classified information, but it seems that there are also wise, prudent and appropriate disclosures of classified information.  The actions of General Jones — or of Kenneth Bacon or innumerable others who have acknowledged or revealed classified information in similar circumstances — were not those of a criminal, and it would almost certainly be counterproductive to try to designate them categorically as crimes.

Some of the challenges involved in prosecuting a leak case were discussed in “For U.S. Inquiries on Leaks, a Difficult Road to Prosecution” by Charlie Savage, New York Times, June 10, 2012.

5 thoughts on “Some Unauthorized Disclosures of Classified Info Are Routine

  1. Great article. It must be constantly repeated that no proposed legislation seeking to punish leakers will have any credibility if such legislation does not also seek to punish those who use the classification system to conceal official incompetence, misconduct, or malfeasance. Protection of information that ought to be secret is crucial, but so is preventing secrecy on pretextual grounds adduced to conceal official misconduct or malfeasance.

  2. Perhaps one of your most important postings. The common practice of bribing media outlets with classified or restricted information, to seduce the unauthorized into the authorized’s control, corrupts the flow of information by deceiving media consumers. To ask the unauthorized to keep information classified without knowing in full the reason for classification, to persuade the gullible with patriotic Walter Mittyish ambition to be an inside player is an ancient practice of rulers and their minions. This self-censorship is all to often justified as “responsible” journalism, and it is endemic among those who place greater value on their special access than in their honesty toward consumers.

    Secrets are manufactured narcotics, like news, and those who think they are on top of their addictions, that they need the adrenalin boost to excell, are seen as fools by the dealers. This applies to the special privileges of journalists who are induced to believe they have a unique role in society and thus are empowered to decide what the public should know. Nonsense at best, another drug-dealing at worst.

    Secrecy news is a peculiar pill of illusion.

  3. John,

    Give me a break. I know you’re smart and aware enough to realize that secrecy is necessary in intelligence work — not to keep that information from ourselves, but to keep our sources, methods, techniques, and capabilities secret from our enemies. Stop thinking about illegitimate reasons for secrecy for a moment as I ask for an honest answer:

    Are you saying that whenever anyone receives classified information — for any reason, even an unauthorized and unwanted leak — it should ALWAYS be published, even when a persuasive case can be made that it’s extremely damaging to national security? Does the interest in exposing secret government information ALWAYS trump arguments for keeping it secret?

  4. In response to your commentary on the current controversy regarding the routine discussion of classified information by members of the Obama administration, I would point out that this has long been a tactic employed by modern presidents and their advisors.

    In particular, as is detailed in our 1988 book entitled Flights of Fancy, Flight of Doom: KAL007 and Soviet-American Rhetoric (Lanham, MD: UPA), Marilyn Young and I quote Washington Post reporter Michael Gettler, who wrote that the KAL incident “produced an unprecedented glimpse into American electronic eavesdropping capabilities” (September 2, 1983, page A17). Secretary of State George Shultz, UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Senator Howard Baker, House majority leader James Wright and White House press secretary Larry Speakes revealed a considerable amount of classified information (Michael Gettler, Washington Post, September 5, 1983, page A9; Steven Weisman, The New York Times, September 5, 1983, page A6; Richard Halloran, The New York Times, September 6, 1983, page A16; Bernard Nossiter, The New York Times, September 7, 1983, pages A1, A15).

    Speaking on the September 1, 1983, ABC News Nightline telecast, Admiral Stansfield Turner, a former CIA director, said, “I was shocked by the amount of detail that the secretary of state gave this morning….The secretary discussed these techniques in greater detail than I’ve ever heard before in public and certainly gave the Soviets a clear readout on just what those capabilities are in this particular area of the world.” Admiral Bobby Inman, former NSA Director, supported the Administration’s actions: “[Y]ou always cringe when sources and methods are being exposed. But there are situations that are of sufficient gravity that those who have the authority to declassify, the principal officers of the government, make the decision to do so.” (transcript of show #604, September 1, 1983, page 8).

    At the end of one press conference, in response to persistent questioning from the news media regarding US reconnaissance capabilities, Mr. Speakes said, “We have given you more information than you ever knew or that we knew about them” (“Press Briefing by Larry Speakes,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, September 4, 1983).

    Chapter Two of our book describes in detail the development of the US rhetorical position concerning the shootdown of KAL007 and the role played by Lawrence Eagleburger, Richard Burt, and CIA Director William Casey in framing the initial government response.

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