By any account, the recent flood of highly classified materials into the media is both illegal and highly damaging to national security interests. While a formal investigation has yet to be conducted, and it may be unfair to prejudge precisely who is responsible, it is painfully obvious that much of this had come from the Obama White House, increasingly described as incompetent and amateurish. Obama himself indignantly disclaims any responsibility on behalf of himself and the White House staff, promising to "root out the leakers." Such protestations have about as much credibility as his prior ones for a transparent administration, and a total lack of responsibility for any other scandal that have rocked his administration for the past three years.
For now responsibility for investigating these new leaks has been given to Eric Holder's Justice Department -- the same people who have lied to the Congress and have been stonewalling the Congress over the "Fast and Furious" scandal for well over a year. Thus far calls for an independent prosecutor, who might actually provide an honest assessment, have fallen on deaf ears. Even in the absence of a full and fair investigation, there are some important lessons to be learned.
For decades the most sensitive classified information has been protected in special "compartments" which require not only a thorough personal background investigation but a strict "need-to-know," controlled by the intelligence agency or Defense Department office responsible for the activity. Historically the need-to-know principle greatly limited access, even where the White House was concerned. As Vice President Harry Truman was not aware of or cleared for the atomic bomb program. For his part, Vice President Gerald Ford was not briefed on many of the intelligence programs, which became a central concern for him shortly after assuming the presidency. Almost no White House staff members outside the National Security Council were given access to this information for good reason -- their jobs didn't require it and there was no legitimate need-to-know.
More recently, however, the proliferation of access to highly sensitive information within the White House and other Executive Department has become far more widespread, greatly eroding the traditional need-to-know principle and greatly increasing the possibility of highly damaging leaks and disclosures. Access to sensitive information has become a matter of prestige and power for many officials, and in many cases certainly not in any way necessary for their job responsibilities.
To make matters worse, this lot includes a number of political operatives whose duties don't involve national security at all, and have little appreciation for the damage caused by such disclosures. Recent disclosures related to the Osama bin Laden capture; the Saudi double agent; targets for drone strikes; cyberattacks and others have clearly had as their express purpose making Obama look good in the face of political opposition in his re-election bid. In the case of disclosures of classified data to officials of Sony Pictures have the added benefit of returning favors to Obama's supporters and campaign contributors. Regardless of how Obama tries to spin this, or distance himself from a problem once again, it makes a mockery of an essential element of our national security enterprise.
The president himself does have the authority to declassify highly sensitive information and disclose it when he believes it to be in the public interest. President Ronald Regan did so in releasing some sensitive NSA information related to Libyan involvement in the bombing of the La Belle disco in Berlin, and did so as part of his justification for the U.S. bombing of Libya. He did so after extensive consultation with his national security staff, for well-defined military objectives, and took complete personal responsibility for his decision. It was not an act taken by some unnamed political operatives who wanted to make him look good for re-election or as another payoff to campaign contributors.
The current problems are not unique to the Obama Administration. Leaks during the Bush Administration lead to the prosecution of Scooter Libby, the Vice President's deputy, and others of lesser note. One can only hope that prosecution under Obama will be equally as vigorous, but there is little to suggest that this will be the case. There has been a decided reluctance on the part of both Obama and his staff to take responsibility for anything whatsoever. It is also the case that the applicable federal statute is the 1917 Espionage Act, an antiquated law with truly draconian penalties. Prosecutors are reluctant to bring cases under this act in all but the most severe cases of espionage.
It is also the case that the "need-to-know" principle has been seriously eroded over time and a return to the standards of decades past is no longer possible. In the post-9/11 era the Government itself has attempted to move from a strict need-to-know concept to what has been termed a "need-to-share" concept, bringing a far larger set of people into the know for sensitive information, in an effort to forestall another terrorist attack. In recent years this has become a fundamental principal for the new Information Sharing Environment, and there is no going back to the old ways.
What is needed, and entirely possible, is adding yet another principle to the security environment -- namely the need to be responsible. For those granted access to the nation's most sensitive information, either for legitimate national security reasons, or political purposes however illegitimate but otherwise authorized, there is a compelling need to act responsibly. Training in this area needs to be an essential part of the security briefing process, and those entrusted with sensitive information need to understand that lives and more are at stake. Those who are willing to do otherwise just to get their man re-elected need to appreciate they are putting the nation's vital interests in jeopardy, and losing the support of our allies in the process.