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06 August 2007

Consequences of the leak culture

We do not as a matter of discretion comment on individual cases involving alleged incidents of deliberate improper disclosure of classified information. However, we have long been on record as decrying the damnable culture which has driven the leak of so many programs in recent years. Hardly a month passes in which one of our colleagues does not report to the watering hole with a tale of woe, having had a program burned from under them and in the ensuing political maelstrom found themselves no longer able to function effectively. The operational costs are incalculable, and the human costs are very real – one reason the community cannot retain its best and brightest, or even continue to motivate those who stay when they know that all of their efforts can so quickly be rendered for naught with a single press item.

Our hatred of leaks, and leakers, has only grown as the scope and impact of unauthorized disclosures has worsened over recent years. We condemn not merely the media – though they ought to display a greater measure of reluctance when approached by those seeking to involve them (and their publication) in an illegal act; but most resoundingly of all those that would casually break their sacred oath and forsake their duty for some temporary and partisan objective. Programs costing billions of dollars and decades of efforts have been destroyed for the most transient of advantages in the political fight which is the Beltway, and if this continues apace, the intelligence community will slowly go blind without key new capabilities innovation, and in the face of adversary denial and deception efforts.

We greatly wonder, however, if the community will ever be able to impose specific consequences on the leakers (and their enablers within the media) to match the damage done by these illegal and utterly dishonorable acts. The framework within the law (and contractual instruments) is clear and strong, but it is a matter of seeing the investigations and enforcement through. However, with recent allegations surfacing of leaks not only for partisan politics, but involving disclosures to foreign officials, it seems that the potential penalties are insufficient deterrence given the scarcity of their actual application.

Such acts are not whistleblowing, they are not dissent, and they are certainly not “speaking truth to power” as some have suggested. There is no other word for this behavior but treason. It is not made noble by the “calling” of the journalist – indeed, if there were any other organizations engaged in the conspiracy to illegaly obtain classified information for profit on an ongoing basis it would be called racketeering at the very least.

There are additional higher order consequences to the leak culture which directly impacts the intelligence studies field. As the damage mounts, so too does an unwillingness by honorable professionals to discuss even unclassified and historical matters, lest an otherwise innocuous conversation be turned into a media spectacle – as has happened in a number of cases where journalists continue to seek the kinds of sensationalist headlines which they have come to rely on. This will inhibit learning within the profession in areas which might otherwise have been suitable for more public discussion. As proof of this, we have but to witness the explosive growth in categories of SBU designations, systems which are in no small part the reaction to poorly written hit pieces which do not even attempt to understand the difficult issues they seek to publicize to no end but their publications own ratings (and advertising profits).

The strength and success of the community will depend on being able to support the robust learning and growth of the next generation of intelligence professionals – many of which who are now learning their trade first in an unclassified and open source only environment. Just as the next generation of secrets will depend entirely on reversing the course of the leak culture, and preserving the commitment to the silent professionalism of service which may never be acknowledged.

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