06/29/2012 03:24 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2012

A Cyber War

The media spin on the White House cyber-leaks story is quickly wearing thin. President Obama says his White House would never leak really important secrets -- and anyway wasn't the press just doing its job of keeping us informed?

Maybe, but the first law of cyber-war is nasty surprises. Especially if you do it right, those surprises can result from worms, viruses or artful key-strokes. Just like when your hard drive crashes, you don't know anything's wrong until it's already way too late. Now if you can believe The New York Times (NYT), this is exactly what President Obama has been doing to Iran in order to slow down their nuclear program. All of course a highly classified, deeply covert and profoundly macho initiative.

Problem is: even when good guys like us take such actions for the noblest of reasons, a campaign of industrial sabotage (either by logic bombs or the real ones) against another country is an act of war. Just like imposing a blockade or sending our Navy to sink or seize their commercial shipping, if you do that, then you'd better duck. Like dissing his wife, daughter or girlfriend, those are open invitations for the other guy to retaliate -- and Iran's mullahs are notoriously un-amused by such affronts.

But like the bully who can't take a punch, the dirtiest little secret of all is that America's computer-dependent society is extraordinarily vulnerable to cyber retaliation -- as Obama's own security czars have warned us over and over. A recent case in point: Just before Christmas, the computers at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce began spouting Chinese characters because the Chamber's electronics (including the office thermostat) had been hacked by Beijing's finest.

Those vulnerabilities make people understandably nervous. But according to the NYT, the sources of both the leak and the resulting scandal included dozens of officials close to -- or working directly for -- the Obama White House. As President, Mr. Obama has a constitutional responsibility to insure that our laws are "faithfully executed" -- including the Espionage Act (Title 18 USC). That law is why alleged Wikileaker Bradley Manning is currently in pre-trial confinement; and why Mr. Obama offered to appoint two independent counsels under Attorney General Holder to pin down responsibility for the cyber-leaks.

But a hundred years after Titanic, another iceberg looms dead ahead, its underwater branches threatening the most damage. The outrage over the cyber-leaks has been sufficiently bi-partisan to raise troubling questions about trusting any potential investigation of White House staff to the Obama Justice Department. For Republicans the ante has been raised still higher with the assertion of executive privilege concerning the Fast And Furious investigation, including a pending contempt-of-congress citation against Attorney General Holder himself.

Now if another potential Watergate isn't enough, then consider the really tricky part of the Espionage Act, which includes tough, industrial-age language in its prohibitions: "Whoever having unauthorized possession of, access to, or control over any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative... relating to the national defense... willfully communicates, delivers, transmits... to any person not entitled to receive it..." That harsh language makes no exemption for reporters, editors, publishers or good intentions but imposes fines, confiscation and ten years imprisonment.

Because politicians and judges are notoriously reluctant to tangle with the Fifth Estate, the law's provisions are seldom applied to leakers; but almost never to reporters, some of them living large from book profits partly derived from selling defense secrets. Always justified under the all-inclusive excuse of "the public's right to know," NYT reporter David Sanger freely hemorrhaged the Iranian cyber penetration and other secrets in a book ironically titled, Confront and Conceal. He is not alone. The first chapters of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's book, Obama's Wars, reveal a shocking amount of highly classified material: intelligence codewords, operational details of a "breakthrough eavesdropping capability" and, for good measure, the "3000-man covert army" run by the CIA in Afghanistan. According to such logic, the government doesn't determine what's classified, the reporters do -- while ignoring the law and pocketing the profits.

This journalistic equivalent of the free flow of sewage is something that Congress must quickly curtail before things get even worse. To do that, Congress and not the Justice Department must quickly seize the initiative as well as the investigative reins. Only after those facts have been nailed down can our representatives best determine how to bring the nation's security-of-information laws into the 21st century. And maybe keep our iPods and ATMs running as well.