Former Secrecy Czar Asks Court to Release NSA Document

05.23.12 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The former director of the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) asked a federal court yesterday for permission to disclose a National Security Agency document that he said represented an egregious example of overclassification.

J. William Leonard was the ISOO director, or what is sometimes called the “classification czar,” from 2002-2008.  In that role, he was responsible to the President of the United States for oversight of classification policy and enforcement of classification standards throughout the executive branch.

In 2010, Mr. Leonard became an expert consultant for the defense of Thomas A. Drake, the former NSA official who was charged with ten felony counts alleging unlawful retention of classified information.  But the government’s case collapsed and all of the felony counts against Mr. Drake were dismissed last year.  In Count One of the indictment against Mr. Drake, he was charged with unauthorized retention of a classified NSA email message entitled “What A Success,” and it is that document which Mr. Leonard is now seeking to make public.

“Mr. Leonard seeks the Court’s permission to publicly discuss the ‘What a Success’ document and the government’s rationale for classifying the document, which, in his opinion, contained absolutely no classified information,” wrote James Wyda and Deborah L. Boardman, Mr. Drake’s public defenders, in their May 22 motion to the Maryland district court.

“It is Mr. Leonard’s firm belief that an open discussion about the government’s actions in this important case is essential to protect the integrity of the Executive Branch’s national security information classification system,” they wrote.

“I strongly believe that classification is a critical national security tool and that the responsibilities of cleared individuals to properly protect classified information are profound,” Mr. Leonard said in an affidavit appended to the motion.

But “when deciding to apply the controls of the classification system to information, government officials are in turn obligated to follow the standards set forth by the President in the governing executive order and not exceed its prohibitions and limitations. Failure to do so undermines the very integrity of the classification system and can be just as harmful, if not more so, than unauthorized disclosures of appropriately classified information,” he wrote.

“It is for that reason that the President’s Executive order governing classification treats unauthorized disclosures of classified information and inappropriate classification of information as equal violations subjecting perpetrators to comparable sanctions, to include ‘reprimand, suspension without pay, removal, termination of classification authority, loss or denial of access to classified information, or other sanctions in accordance with applicable law and agency regulation’.”

But the equal weight given to the prohibitions against unauthorized disclosure and inappropriate classification is not reflected in actual practice, Mr. Leonard said.

“While government workers, members of the military and government contractors are routinely disciplined or prosecuted for unauthorized disclosures, I know of no case in which an official was sanctioned for inappropriately classifying information.”

That needs to change, according to Mr. Leonard, and the NSA’s wrongful classification of the “What A Success” document provides an opportunity to rectify the situation, he said.

“I believe the Government’s actions in the Drake case served to undermine the integrity of the classification system and as such, have placed information that genuinely requires protection in the interest of national security at increased risk,” he wrote.

In July 2011, Mr. Leonard filed a formal complaint about the NSA document with the current ISOO Director, John P. Fitzpatrick, in which he urged that the officials responsible for its classification be subjected to appropriate sanctions.  See “Complaint Seeks Punishment for Classification of Documents” by Scott Shane, New York Times, August 1, 2011.

But the issue has still not been resolved through that approach, Mr. Leonard noted.

Mr. Fitzpatrick told Secrecy News that “I am awaiting final responses from NSA and DoJ to inquiries I made of them on the Leonard complaint.  I anticipate their responses very soon and then expect to draw that matter to conclusion.”

Mr. Drake’s attorneys indicated that the government did not consent to their motion for disclosure of the “What A Success” document, which has been declassified, and of Mr. Leonard’s ISOO complaint, which remains under seal.  So it will be up to the Court to decide whether those materials may be released.