On Wednesday, at a conference sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center at the Willard Hotel in Washington, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made his first public comments since assuming that position. By all accounts, Clapper, a retired three-star Air Force general, is a low-profile and understated leader who keeps to himself whenever possible.
Not surprisingly, Clapper’s talk focused partially on the so-called “Wikileaks” incident that revealed hundreds of thousands of pages of classified documents to the public. These documents, by all accounts, could potentially bring about serious damage to our troops and intelligence operatives in the fields of battle. Clapper showed what I can only assume to be characteristic humility when speaking of his conversation with President Obama regarding the leaks: "I was ashamed to have to sit there and listen to the president express his great angst about the leaking in this town.”
In his mild mannered and surprisingly bookish fashion, Clapper suggested that his primary mission as DNI is to seek to integrate national and international intelligence. Clapper noted that the increasing use of technology and social media networks among terrorist extremists is making that goal increasingly difficult. Furthermore, Clapper emphasized that the U.S. intelligence community now considers terrorist cybergroups as a threat equivalent to actual terrorist physical networks. To his credit, Clapper also acknowledged the need for balance between protection of civil liberties and continued security and protection for American citizens--an issue of great concern to the Obama administration.
The fight over the public’s access to confidential military information is certainly not a new one. The most notable instance of this tension is the infamous "Pentagon Papers" case, in which both the New York Times and the Washington Post published leaked material containing confidential information regarding military activity in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker who provided the information to these publications, was indicted and stood trial that ultimately resulted in a mistrial. Although the Supreme Court’s ruling on the case is generally considered a victory for the First Amendment, the Pentagon Papers case is still fraught with idiosyncrasies that continue to puzzle both government officials and journalists alike.
In a sign of rare bipartisan agreement, President Obama, his administration, and many senior Republican members of Congress have severely condemned the Wikileaks incident. Clapper indicated in his speech that the leaks established a “big yellow flag” that would almost certainly have a “chilling effect” on the ability and need of the intelligence community to share information. Obama has been quoted as saying that these leaks could quite possibly “jeopardize individuals or operations.” Similarly, the Pentagon, headed by Republican Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, announced it would launch a criminal probe to uncover the source of the leaks.
Congressional Republicans are, not surprisingly, a bit more heated in their rhetoric, one of them even calling for the death penalty for the leaker once his or her identity is discovered. Even more moderate congressional Republicans such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham--well known as John McCain’s heir to the Republican “dealmaker” mantle in the U.S. Senate--called for prosecution for “anybody who led to undermining the war effort.” Graham’s statement was in response to a specific question about the Wikileaks incident.
In an age where bitter partisan rancor fills the airwaves and the halls of Congress, it is encouraging to see that members of both parties appear to be in relative agreement on the damage done to the American intelligence and military communities by this incident. The old maxim that “partisanship stops at the water’s edge” appears to be ringing a bit more true these days.
One only wishes it didn’t take near acts of war to foster meaningful dialogue between the two major political parties.