The Latest Khashoggi Leak Violates Important Norms
The front page of the Washington Post has a revelation: the CIA thinks that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had a direct role in the killing of Post correspondent Jamal Kashoggi. This is big news and another scoop for the Post's excellent team of reporters. They have done their job well.
And it really, really is a problem that they have succeeded. In normal times—by which I mean the entire course of the American Republic, and certainly the time from 1945 until just a couple of years ago—the CIA's conclusions about bin Salman would have been some of the most highly classified secrets within the American government, subject to dissemenation to a small, select group of individuals. The reasons for this secrecy are, classically, two-fold: First, disclosure of what we know deprives the country's leaders of freedom of action, to act with knowledge that U.S. adversaries don't know we have and to select courses of action that maximize America's benefit. Second, disclosure of what the government knows will often "burn" sources and methods so that the inquiry is of the "one and done" variety. When U.S. opponents know what America knows, they often learn how America knows it—and change their behavior accordingly.
And so it is beyond belief that some in the CIA (or elsewhere in the classified community) feel the necessity to disclose this Top Secret information publicly through the Post. I understand their motivation—the aberrance of Donald Trump is so great that they have no faith in his ability or willingness to process intelligence analysis faithfully. I share their concern—in spades. But violating norms of behavior and the criminal law is not the way to ameliorate the problem.
And make no mistake—this disclosure of classified information to the Post reporters is almost certainly a crime by whoever leaked it. Even worse, it almost certainly does long-term, lasting damage to America's ability to collect intelligence and negotiate with the Saudis. Consider just two examples from the many one could cite from the article:
The Saudis now have confirmed that we can intercept calls from their U.S. embassy to the capital. They may have suspected that before—but they may have also thought their countermeasures were sufficient. Now they know they are not, and will adjust.
Likewise, the Saudis now also know that the United States's best assessment is that bin Salman has a firm grip on power and won't lose it over the Khashoggi incident. So much for the U.S. ability, should the administration want to exercise it, to try and threaten the prince. He knows the U.S. knows it won't work and can readily call the American bluff.
Look, I get it. Trump is an aberration. Since he was likely to ignore the intelligence analysis, this leak is the only way to give it currency and credence. But it is still wrong. As I have said before , we defend norms of behavior by defending them, not by violating them. I know I sound like a broken record, but this is the third time (at a minimum) that elements of the intelligence community have leaked significantly classified information in ways that do more harm than good. Stop leaking. Just stop.