The Snowden Effect

03/10/2017 08:56 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2017

For well over half a century the U.S. has depended on its Intelligence Community as the first line of defense in meeting important national security objectives. Much of intelligence work must necessarily be done in secret, and often its successes are never know to the public. Leaks of classified data and actual espionage are not new, and often impair vital operations, if not the lives of those working for the CIA. Recently, however, the unprecedented scale and nature of illegal disclosures, present a challenge never seen before. Those engaged in this illicit and harmful practice must learn quickly that their actions have consequences, both for the nation and themselves.

Most recently the WikiLeaks web site offered up a trove of classified materials including some 8,000 documents and over 900 attachments, detailing large-scale technical development by CIA to access communications devices in support of national security missions. Without question the damage to important intelligence operations is massive, and far too early in the game to fully assess the damage. The truly important questions here are why this going is on and what can be done about it to limit future damage.

An initial question has been to ask CIA if these documents are genuine, which clearly the CIA cannot answer in any public forum. A more useful question would be to ask what would be required to forge or fake this mass of material, much of which contains complex computer code. Clearly it would take a forgery operation of enormous magnitude which the world has not seen before, so the likelihood of this trove being genuine is exceedingly high and the nation must act accordingly.

Since the beginning, the security of intelligence activities has relied on both personnel security – the vetting of those engaged in intelligence operation, as well as the physical security of the data and equipment involved. The traditional approach to “vetting” has involved background investigation, and in many case polygraphs and psychological assessments to make sure those entrusted with the nation’s secrets are reasonably responsible and safe from blackmail and other potential threats. What this process does not do is identify candidates or those currently cleared who have some political agenda or personal grievance that might lead them to unauthorized leaking.

When cleared and indoctrinated, new personnel are also made aware of the seriousness of intelligence operations as well as the strict penalties under the law for violating their security agreement with the government. This is where the system has obviously broken down. Leakers causing this horrible damage are not Russian spies, or working for some other foreign power, but rather Americans who have access to secrets and think that it’s OK for them to unlawfully disclose them simply because they don’t like a particular U.S. policy or political candidate.

This can be called the “Snowden Effect” after the NSA contractor Edward Snowden who stole a massive amount of NSA material in 2013 and is now hiding in Russia and faces espionage charges if returned to the U.S. Making matters worse some in the media and liberal groups see Snowden as some sort of hero for exposing intelligence operations that do not fit their political agenda, with no regard for the damage to essential sources and methods vital to national security.

While Snowden’s theft and disclosures predate Donald Trump’s election by some three years, many in the media believe that the current wave of leaks and disclosures are a reaction to the Trump victory and part of a larger “hate Trump” movement among the left wing. Sadly there may be more than a little truth to this assessment. Efforts by those in the Intelligence Community, as well as elsewhere in the government with access to classified materials, to somehow damage the Trump presidency is not only shameful, but puts at risk an entire process essential to the nation’s safety.

Putting the blame on WikiLeaks or the Russians is not the answer. The simple truth is that the Intelligence Community cannot function effectively in a new world where any of the many thousands of employees, contractor personnel, or others with classified access can take it upon themselves to illegally leak materials as they see fit. Illegal leakers now exist in a nation with millions of illegal immigrants, all of whom seem immune from prosecution. As long as this de facto situation exists, the leaks and the damage will continue.

Clearly President Trump is furious about the situation, and for good reason. His pledge to keep America safe is highly dependent on an effective Intelligence Community – not one that is falling apart at the seams and leaking like a sieve. He needs to fix the problem, and fix it quickly. There is no single point solution, but there are some key elements to get under way.

Get Snowden back and prosecute him under the Espionage Act. Swapping spies with the Russians has a long and time-honored history. Certainly Putin has no love for him, and would likely send him back as part of a deal. Donald Trump is the master of the “deal” so possibly he can make this one soon. The price may be well worth it. Penalties under the Espionage Act can be severe, and a serious prosecution would send the right message to future leakers. The prospect of a decade or two in federal prison can serve to deter many potential leakers with self-serving political agendas.

Use the full resources of the federal government to identify those responsible for the recent CIA debacle and prosecute them under the statute as well. The FBI reportedly has an investigation under way, and needs to be joined by the security components of CIA and others. Polygraphs of any with access as well as other investigative tools need to be employed in earnest. The Justice Department should seek to empanel a grand jury, which would then provide additional subpoena powers and the ability to undertake serious investigations. Once a few leakers are found, the normal process of fear and plea bargains will likely lead to finding others as well. Doubtless the liberal media will call this a “witch hunt” but this is a time when hunting these witches is just what is needed.

The bottom line here is that the leaks are not going to stop until those thinking about doing so have a very real fear of being found and prosecuted, and there is just no substitute for clear examples. Coupled with this needs to be an updated version of the clearance and indoctrination process where those given access to the nation’s secrets understand that they don’t have the option of making unauthorized disclosures because U.S. government policy doesn’t fit their personal political agenda, or they remain unhappy about the outcome of the last election.

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