Americans should be very concerned about the White House’s cavalier attitude regarding the release of sensitive national security information. We pay a high price for politically inspired opportunism, especially when the task of keeping our secrets is becoming more difficult. We must do better.
Last week the History Channel premiered the documentary “Targeting Bin Laden,” which celebrates “the greatest victory in the war on terror.” It included interviews with President Obama and his key national security advisers and was chock-full of sensitive national security information that reflects the administration’s full cooperation.
The History Channel evidently tapped many of the same sources used by Nicholas Schmidle to write his incredibly “insightful” Aug. 8 article for The New Yorker. Together, that article, “Getting Bin Laden,” and the documentary recklessly expose the identities of national security personnel and our special operating forces’ techniques, tactics, procedures and technologies used in the May 2 raid to take down al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Clearly politics was the administration’s rationale for being so generous with our secrets. Our enemies and Obama’s image benefit, while our national security suffers.
Our security suffers because every enemy spy agency and terrorist will thoroughly examine the documentary and article to update their countermeasures and try to identify the intelligence personnel shown in the documentary. Not everyone in those pictures was an actor, and the detailed operational information is now compromised.
Unfortunately, the exposure of operational details in the bin Laden raid was only the latest example of the administration casting our security to the wind. Obama, within his first hundred days in office, publicized secret memos on our interrogation techniques such as the approach used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to interrogate terrorists such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Those memos revealed the steps we use to extract information to prevent terrorist attacks. That release armed Islamist jihadists with invaluable defensive weapons, such as an understanding that our use of waterboarding is “authorized for, at most, one 30-day period, during which the technique can actually be applied on no more than five days” with “no more than two sessions in any 24-hour period.”
The same cavalier attitude is evidenced by the administration’s Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations with the Russians. Former CIA Director James Woolsey writes in the June 2011 edition of Foreign Affairs that Obama wants to give the Russians classified U.S. technologies and “‘red button authority to prevent the interception of incoming missiles headed for U.S. troops or allies.”
Woolsey explains that the Russians apparently insist the Obama administration surrender sensitive U.S. missile defense technology and operational authority as part of the START deal. Fortunately, Congress discovered the deal and inserted Section 1228 in the Pentagon’s 2012 annual authorization act to deny funds that provide Russia with sensitive U.S. missile defense technology.
These security compromises and others illustrate the administration’s offhanded treatment of sensitive information. But Obama’s problem keeping secrets parallels another well-rooted security challenge—leaked government secrets and a complicit media. Juxtapose the two, and one quickly sees the administration’s double standard.
Specifically, our press has become an open vault for foreign collection, especially with the Internet harnessed to powerful search engines that vacuum up information that often includes leaks of sensitive information. Foreign agents use that information to develop countermeasures that diminish our operational effectiveness. The bin Laden case illustrates the problem.
Ari Fleisher, the former press secretary for President George W. Bush, explained the problem. The press published leaked information that indicated the National Security Agency was “able to listen to Osama bin Laden on his satellite phone,” Fleisher said. “As a result of the disclosure, [bin Laden] stopped using it … [and] the United States was denied the opportunity to monitor and gain information that could have been very valuable for protecting our country.”
Like terrorists, nation-states take advantage of our leaking. James Bruce, a CIA official, posted an article on his agency’s website that quotes a former Russian military intelligence officer addressing our intelligence vulnerability. “I am amazed—and Moscow was very appreciative—at how many times I found very sensitive information in American newspapers. In my view, Americans tend to care more about scooping their competition than about national security, which made my job easier.”
The Obama administration came to office promising to be transparent, “committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness.” But that commitment morphed into a double standard when it comes to national security. Specifically, the administration demonstrates a dangerous “openness” in politically favorable cases such as the bin Laden raid and START negotiations, but not when it comes to unfavorable security leaks.
Rather, the administration vigorously objects when leaks embarrass it, and as a result, has stepped up prosecutions, which is good. For example, the administration was hurt by the WikiLeaks case involving Julian Assange, the Australian who posted thousands of leaked pages of U.S. documents on the Internet. Many of those documents and others from insider sources put the Obama administration on the defensive, especially regarding its Afghanistan policy.
To its credit, the administration vigorously prosecutes leakers of government information and is seriously trying to prevent leaks. Last winter, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sent a leak-preventing 14-page memo to all agencies. Interestingly, that memo suggests the agencies use psychiatrists and sociologists to identify disgruntled employees who might leak, among other initiatives.
We need to do four things to better secure our state secrets, beginning with presidential leadership.
First, the American people must demand the President guard the nation’s secrets by eschewing political opportunism such as revealing security information to the doting press.
Second, all federal agencies must educate their force about the legal obligations and possible penalties for failing to safeguard intelligence information. Managers must know what to look for regarding those vulnerable to leaking and the Obama administration’s OMB memo is a good start.
Third, the Department of Justice needs the tools to identify and prosecute individuals who deliberately share classified intelligence. We need comprehensive laws that make it easier to prosecute wrongdoers and increase penalties for those who disclose information.
Finally, we need laws that find the balance between protecting journalists and protecting national security. Media that publish secrets that harm the country must be held accountable.
The Obama administration is dangerously fickle about the nation’s secrets. It has no problem revealing secrets when it suits its political purposes, but it becomes an aggressive enforcer when it comes to leaks that expose its vulnerabilities. Our secrets must be closely guarded, no exceptions and especially when it is clear our enemies will benefit.
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