`And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.' (John VIII-32).
So speaks the inscription that marks the entranceway of the Central Intelligence Agency. Within that off-cited scripture lies motivation for countless men and women who have discreetly defended and promoted the principles of peace, freedom and democracy by working for the U.S. intelligence organizations at home and abroad. I know, because I served among them for 10 years as a career Clandestine Services officer.
Now, as the only former CIA intelligence operations officer sitting in Congress, I believe I can offer a unique perspective on the sensitivity of our intelligence secrets--and the damage from divulging those secrets through the open political forum of the U.S. Congress.
One thing is clear: The unauthorized disclosure of classified information--international or otherwise--has a profoundly harmful effect on this nation's ability to collect timely and accurate information necessary for our leaders' decision-making ability.
Another thing, sadly, is becoming clear: Neither all my colleagues nor all their staff with access to classified information seem to understand just how devastating leaked information can be. With nuclear holocaust only a button's push away, is this a situation we should tolerate? Isn't it time we addressed this issue in the U.S. Congress? Isn't it time we started plugging the leaks on the Hill?
We are now living in an era of extraordinary and fast-moving change. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall, student uprisings in China, the evolution of fair and free elections in Latin American nations--these are truly tidal waves of change. And with such events, the United States faces uncertainty and opportunity--both of which create a critical need for solid intelligence and wise decision-making.
The early architects of our intelligence services recognized the importance of feeding timely facts and accurate raw data into foreign policy formulation. The simple truth is that good intelligence can prevent conflicts and save lives; bad intelligence does the reverse. Recorded history is our proof. Most of us recall our elation at the successful outcome of the Cuban missile crisis, in contrast to our shock over the total failure of early warning at Pearl Harbor.
Today, probably more than ever, our leaders rely heavily on our nation's intelligence collection capabilities. Without the myraid of details and analyses sent to Washington from our field offices and many sources abroad, our policy-making capacity would be noticeably crippled.
When I worked as a CIA operations officer, I met discreetly with men and women who shared the American faith in democratic principles. Those people placed their livelihoods--and in some cases their lives--on the line to help advance the cause of freedom and democracy in their own countries. They didn't have to meet with me, and they didn't have to support our efforts to promote democracy. Yet for their own very deeply held reasons, they took the risk--often at great personal cost.
The most junior intelligence officer is carefully taught how to protect these sources and their special information. Our men and women serving in these front lines understand that any mistakes or leaks have the potential to bring about immediate, unpleasant consequences. Elaborate security measures and strict compartmentalization are practiced to be sure knowledge is shared only on a `need-to-know' basis.
Clearly, the same should be true at the highest levels of our government. Leaks of classified information, whether headline news or one line dribbles, shake our intelligence gathering capabilities to the core and endanger lives--lives of operational sources in hostile areas and lives of our own operation officers.
When unauthorized sensitive information hits the news, it is a fair bet that the shock waves will be felt worldwide. Cooperative assets overseas become demoralized, reluctant and even fearful. We lose face and credibility with intelligence agencies of other friendly countries. Sources dry up everywhere. Often our closest friends find it difficult to stick with us if their national well-being is suddenly jeopardized by the release of sensitive material in Washington. Our access to information vital to our national interests begins to narrow.
News of intelligence leaks also make it that much harder to recruit and develop well-placed new contacts. People who had considered meeting confidentially with U.S. government officials fear their information could be tomorrow's compromising news--and committed as they may be to democracy and freedom, they prefer their silence to someone else's indiscretion.
Until recently, the administration has been served large and repeated doses of criticism about alleged mismanagement of events in Panama--criticism that blames our government for inaction because we apparently lacked the contacts to find out what was going on. I wonder if it has occurred to those measuring out the complaints that we may be paying the price for previous security leaks on the Hill? If so, it promises to be a pretty expensive plumbing bill.
Those who are made privy to classified material know that they have an obligation to uphold the trust of protecting it. There are several simple, but extremely important reforms we could implement on the Hill to prove that we re serious about this trust. In fact, several current members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, most notably Henry Hyde of Illinois, have made similar suggestions in public debate.
Why not require all members and staffers who receive classified briefings to take a simple oath administered by Congress agreeing not to disclose sensitive material to unauthorized persons?
As a freshman member of Congress, I was surprised to learn that no such commitment exists for members of the House of Representatives or the Senate--even though every newcomer to our intelligence organizations must take such an oath. At a minimum, individuals who make such a formal commitment to protect sensitive information become more aware of their increased responsibilities.
Why not require security clearances for members and staff to whom highly classified information will be regularly provided?
Why not impose penalties for members and staff who willfully disclose classified information to unauthorized persons?
Curiously, when members have formally made such recommendations at committee level in the past, partisan politics have streered the debate to nowhere. I've seen it happen three times in my first 10 months in Congress alone. This type of reform is not only sound and long overdue, but it would go a long way toward bolstering the confidence of our allies overseas, who for too long have been distressed by the leakage within the legislative branch.
But there is one further reason for reform. The entrance of the CIA headquarters building also houses a memorial to honor the American men and women who have been killed in the line of duty. Few are identified by name because they served their country in clandestine service. Instead, we honor their sacrifice quietly by inscribing a star into the granite for each person killed. I knew one of those individuals--a person who died violently and needlessly because information was released to the wrong person at the wrongtime.
Despite forewarning, Winston Churchill silently allowed the population of Coventry, England in World War II to be subjected to a killer air raid to conceal the vital secret that the allies had broken the Nazi communication code. That was wartime; life and death decisions were part of it. This is peacetime, and there is no excuse for casualties either to our sources or to our secrets.