By Nick Schwellenbach
The Secretary of Defense sternly warned Defense Department employees Thursday that the government will scour news reports for leaks of classified information, try to unmask the leakers, and refer cases to the Justice Department -- which has the power to prosecute.
In a sweeping memo, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the latest efforts by the executive branch to stanch the flow of secret information into the public domain.
"I am directing a 'top down' approach to improve the identification, investigation, and reporting of unauthorized disclosures of classified information," Panetta wrote.
The Pentagon's head of public affairs "will review all major, national media reporting for unauthorized disclosures of DoD classified information," the memo states.
The Department's Under Secretary for Intelligence will then assign DoD investigators to probe the leaks and "when appropriate" refer the matter to the Justice Department.
The memo shows how the Department is trying to exert greater control over the flow of all information -- even unclassified information -- to the media. The Pentagon's top spokesperson "is the sole release authority to news media for official DoD information" and "all media inquiries must be coordinated through appropriate public affairs channels," according to the memo.
The federal government has initiated numerous efforts to stop and penalize unauthorized disclosures of secret information since WikiLeaks published thousands of Defense and State Department documents allegedly supplied by Army Private Bradley Manning.
Non-profit watchdogs have long argued that the overzealous plugging of leaks and prosecution of leakers can intimidate whistleblowers and stymie efforts to hold the government accountable for waste, fraud, abuse, misguided policies, and other misconduct. Case in point: the government's collapsed prosecution of National Security Agency employee Thomas Drake for exposing waste in a NSA program.
But the government says it is trying to protect national security for the right reasons. "Unauthorized disclosures of classified information put at risk the success of the most sensitive classified operations, plans, partnerships, and technologies of DoD and our mission partners," according to Panetta's memo. "It is not an overstatement to say that human lives are at times jeopardized when someone leaks classified information. We can and must do a better job of deterring and preventing these types of disclosures."
While the Administration is seeking to penalize leakers who go to the media, it also has created a framework of protections for those who use channels within the government for whistleblower disclosures. Notably, the President recently issued a Presidential Policy Directive giving national security and intelligence community employees whistleblower protections for the first time.
Nick Schwellenbach is a guest blogger. He was formerly the director of investigations for the Project On Government Oversight.