Executive branch agencies submitted 37 “crimes reports” to the Department of Justice last year regarding leaks of classified information.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, wrote Patricia Matthews of the DOJ National Security Division, “We have conducted a search of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section. A records search of that Section indicates that 37 crime reports concerning unauthorized disclosures of classified information were received by DOJ in CY 2016.” (The specific nature of the leaks and the government’s responses to them were not disclosed.)
What makes the latest number of reported leaks interesting is not that it deviates sharply from past experience but that it does not.
Evidently there is a baseline of leakiness that persists even in the face of strenuous official efforts to combat leaks.
President Obama issued executive order 13587 in 2011 to improve safeguarding of classified information. He issued a National Insider Threat Policy in 2012, which was intended in part to deter unauthorized disclosures of classified information. The Obama Administration famously prosecuted more suspected leakers than ever before. But after all of that, the annual number of suspected criminal leaks is stable and undiminished.
Among other things, this has implications for security policy. Since leaks continue despite government actions to suppress them, prudent security officers will limit their vulnerability by using classification more selectively, by further reducing the security-cleared population, and by aiming for resilience to unwanted disclosure rather than for perfect secrecy.
“There’s been major crimes committed,” House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) told reporters yesterday, referring to the latest leaks in the Trump Administration. “What I’m concerned about is no one is focusing on major leaks that have occurred here… We can’t run a government like this. A government can’t function with massive leaks at the highest level.”
But the record of the past decade indicates that the government has no alternative but to operate in a leaky environment.
A stronger argument could even be made that some irreducible level of leakiness serves a salutary purpose as a check against misconduct. A perfectly reliable and altogether leak-proof secrecy system would present an irresistibly dangerous temptation to irresponsible political leaders.