Hogan's Alley

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Is CIA Leaking OK, Always, Never, Sometimes

The matter of the dismissal of Mary McCarthy from her CIA position has, it a way, clouded the issue of whether or when intelligence officials should provide secret information to journalists. McCarthy was discharged for allegedly leaking information about the rendition of terror suspects to the tender mercies of prisons in the former USSR. Focusing on McCarthy, who has now declared that she did no such thing, moves us away from the core issue. She may or may not have leaked. There are signs in the Washington Post article(s) by Dana Priest that multiple leakers may exist.

It is also true that the administration has no claim on the moral high ground since it has engaged in revealing formerly classified information on WMD. The fact that their leaks had been declassified prior to the actual leakage is a difference without a distinction if, as Bush previously did, they want to decry all leaks.

But the fact remains that no one in the CIA or any other intelligence agency has the authority to declassify anything on their own motion. When they leak, the material will always be secret. The fact that the administration has been the leaker of first instance in this matter does not absolve those who serve the government of the United States from their moral and legal obligation to maintain the secrets with which they have been entrusted.

The argument has been made that the leakers are heroes because they and their supporters believe that rendition is wrong, illegal or immoral and represents an unconstitutional usurpation of power by the President.

Let's do a small thought experiment. Suppose that in 2008 a Democrat, let us say Russ Feingold, is elected to the White House. Now suppose that several years into the Feingold administration a policy decision is made to provide Iran with nuclear weapons in the hope that such an action will provide a semblance of nuclear balance between the Arab states and Israel. Suppose further that this deal is declared top secret and done without any proper notification to the Congress. Now suppose there is one or more CIA employees who are familiar with this action and they oppose it on the grounds that it is geopolitically foolish and that the President has violated the Constitution by singlehandedly arming avowed enemies of the United States, thereby violating the central promise of his oath of office. Suppose further that these CIA staff members believe that such a weapon will be directly conveyed to terrorists for use against the US or its interests.

Would those who approve of the current leaks find leaks against a Democratic administration equally heroic? As with all human organizations, intelligence agencies will always have some employees who disagree with the policies or practices of the elected political leaders. Are CIA employees to be empowered to speak to reporters whenever their personal judgment or level of moral or political outrage requires them to do so? That way lies chaos.

The plain answer is that those who are in government service, or the military for that matter are required by our system to follow the dictates of elected officials and their appointed managers. The ethical thing for a disgruntled employee to do in such circumstances is to quit, rather than to continue to play a part in what they consider wrong. To remain is to facilitate the wrong doing and serve it's designers.

Leaving one's career is very difficult. There are not that many spy jobs in the private sector. Career civil servants often come to regard the current occupants of the White House as temporary interlopers, whereas they are the true, stable servants of the republic. To grant them, as unelected technocrats, the right to impact the policies of the nation is to encourage the kind of anarchism and power grabbing that South American states are famous for. It may be politically expedient for Democrats or liberals to champion their leakers, but as surely as the sun rises in the East they will come to regret this new empowerment of the unelected that has been unleashed.