Friday, December 30, 2005

Justice Probe of NSA Leak

Prominent news readers on major news networks called the fact that the Department of Justice is investigating the source of the recent leak about NSA's intercept program a "Stunning development!" Even the most cursory research would have served as a reminder that the DoJ is required to investigate national-level breaches of law and such an investigation should come as no surprise to anyone.

The National Security Act of 1947, which governs these matters, tasks the President with the establishment of procedures to govern access to classified information. This act also defines classified information as "information that has been determined pursuant to Executive Order 12356 (or successor orders) to require protection against unauthorized disclosure." Although technically the President is the official U.S. classification authority, this authority is delegated to the Director of National Intelligence (formerly the Director of Central Intelligence). The act makes this official "responsible for protecting intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure." It also requires him to notify congressional oversight committees of any violation and to refer violations to DoJ for investigation.

"The government has no legal right to pursue the whistleblower [or] whistleblowers who disclosed what's been publicly aired to date," cried a lawyer representing whistleblowers.

I could not disagree more: it is illegal for anyone to violate their secrecy oath, a legally binding condition of access to classified information, and all violators of our laws must be held accountable. To deal with real or perceived abuses by any government agency is precisely why there is a well-established complaint process within the each agency of the executive branch, as well as legislative oversight by appropriate congressional committees with properly cleared members of Congress and staff. The leaker signed an oath - going to the New York Times violates that oath - no matter what the intent.

The National Security Act has specific provisions for the Inspector General to " ensure operations are conducted efficiently and in accordance with applicable law and regulations" and to report to the DNI and oversight committees violations, abuses, fraud and other serious problems and deficiencies, as well as corrective actions. The act further offers specific protection for whistle blowers: the IG may not disclose their identity without their consent and there may be no reprisal (or threat thereof).

As an intelligence professional I can tell you with absolute certainty that only authorized government personnel (or government contractors) with appropriate clearances, who have a specific need to know because of the position they hold, have legal access to classified information. There are no circumstances under which citizens or media reps have the right to this access, although access is sometimes granted on a limited basis during certain judicial proceedings.

The fact that there are abuses of this trust within the government or in the intelligence community (just like law enforcement members, politicians, teachers, clergy, lawyers, etc. sometimes violate the trust placed in them), in no way justifies the unauthorized release of classified information to anyone and it remains illegal to do so. To deal with violations of this trust is precisely why we have a rigorous system of congressional oversight since the mid-1970s: the oversight committees' (intelligence, judiciary, armed services, etc) members and staff are specifically cleared for classified access and well-equipped to deal with this type of problem. I did just this during several years on the staff of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The law provides for punishment of those with legal access to classified information who release it to unauthorized recipients, not those who receive it this way and make it public. Thus the media can make anything public they want, but that does not mean they have the right to classified information. The leakers are violating the law, not the media.