Secrecy & Leaks

WaPo Op-Ed On Leaks and Former Government Officials

By Wells Bennett
Friday, June 1, 2012, 10:23 PM

This morning, Paul flagged a Washington Post op-ed by Senators Coats, Rubio and Burr.  The trio's piece concerns the improper revelation of national security secrets.  As one example, the authors cite the recent disruption, by the CIA and a foreign intelligence service, of a planned airline bombing by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  The closely-held intelligence operation’s existence was leaked to the Associated Press (“AP”) by an unknown official.  And the news service first had delayed publication, at the White House’s urging, but ultimately printed its story on May 7.  An FBI inquiry into the leak is reportedly ongoing. 

“More must be done to prevent intelligence disclosures of this magnitude,” the Senators argue.  And, they say, the issue is rooted in the media’s insatiable hunger to report on the wildest and most sensitive intelligence activities.  Fair enough. A few paragraphs later, though, the op-ed shifts focus, and weirdly so:

An underlying problem that can and must be fixed is the role of former national security officials who leave government and take jobs as talking heads for television networks. This common transition should be examined by Congress. Media outlets understandably value such officials because of their influential contacts, insights on security topics, and the provocative details and analysis they can add to a broadcast.

When they leave Capitol Hill, former members of Congress and their staff are, by law, prohibited from petitioning their former congressional colleagues for up to two years. Yet nothing restricts former security officials from using their government contacts and experience to provide live commentary on breaking news stories.

Wait, what? How are ex-officials moonlighting on talk shows the “underlying problem,” as far as unauthorized leaks go? The Senators’ piece nowhere charges that such people had a hand in disclosing the bomb plot story to the AP.  Instead the op-ed makes clear that former officials were briefed on the plot’s disruption by the White House, as the AP went to press (emphasis mine):

Why did the Obama administration hold a conference call May 7 with a collection of former government officials, some of whom work as TV contributors and analysts, to discuss the foiled bomb threat? In doing so, the White House failed to safeguard sensitive intelligence information that gave us an advantage over an adversary.

The President occasionally discloses national security information, consistent with his authority to keep some secrets and to reveal other ones.  And in this case, it seems the White House did just that.  It opted to discuss the thwarted attack with reporters and television commentators, given that the Associated Press already had gone forward with its story.

Such an approach can be criticized as harmful to national security, of course – but again, that’s not the Senators’ main concern.  They are more preoccupied, apparently, with John Bolton babbling to Britt Hume, or Mike Leiter offering his two cents on Brian Williams’ show.

Really?  If that is the pressing problem warranting congressional action (as opposed to the leak to the AP itself, or the White House's handling of it), then the op-ed doesn’t really make an especially strong a case for why – especially since former officials are, like current ones, barred from publishing secrets acquired during their government service, and, in some cases, can face prosecution if they reveal them.