There Is No Scandal in Tracking Down Leaks

Publishing classified information should be against the law.

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President Barack Obama

Daniel Gallington is the senior policy and program adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

In the middle of the other "scandals," i.e. Benghazi and the Internal Revenue Service, that the Obama Administration has to deal with - and which may change the general direction of politics in America at the next general election - there is also the Department of Justice going after the Associated Press in a criminal investigation into leaks of classified information.

The real "news" for us on this last one is that it is no scandal, even though the media are spinning it that way.

Why? Simple: They want to continue getting – from "leakers" inside government – classified information and then publishing it. To them,  it's just another "hot story," while for the people actually involved in the situation, it may mean risking their lives or the failure of an operation that could jeopardize our national security. In short, it sells us all out.

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This is also why, in our Constitutional form of government, there is absolutely no right or protection for anyone to publish national security information - and "anyone" includes the media and press. Not only that, let's say that a classified document is stolen or taken from an authorized government facility and given to a reporter. In this situation, the government clearly has the right – and even the obligation – to investigate the disappearance of the document and retrieve it by any legal means. This includes getting warrants for telephone records, wiretaps and even carrying out physical searches. And this same logic applies in the digital world.

Is it "legal" for the Justice Department to go after the AP as part of a criminal investigation into the loss or unauthorized disclosure of classified information? Absolutely, and the suggestion of a "scandal" is a massive deflection by the media. Again, the First Amendment simply does not "allow" the publication of national security information - never has, never will.

For some international perspective: We may be the only democracy in the world not to have what is called an "official secrets act," a law that makes it a crime to publish national security information. This explains why we rarely – if ever - see similar situations arise, for example, in Canada, the United Kingdom or most other European countries. In these countries, their media simply do not – under penalty of criminal law – publish their classified information, much less actively seek it out, as they do here.

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Do we need such a law here? Again, it is simply impossible to get an objective discussion of this question because of the emotional "freedom of the press" arguments, which begin from the false premise that there is somehow a constitutional right to publish government secrets. There is no such "right."

On the other hand, does the government classify way too much information and keep it classified way too long? Yes. However, this problem has been addressed and readdressed over the years by rules that limit the number of "classification authorities," by periodic reviews of classified information and by limitations on the number of years information can be classified. Of course, because of the immense damage some information could cause if it were released, there have to be exceptions – but this is the very nature of national security related information.

Ultimately, it is the president, as commander in chief, who is responsible for establishing, protecting and eventually releasing this kind of information – not the media.

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Accordingly, when I was bi-partisan General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), I drafted this rather innocuous provision for inclusion in the fiscal 2001 Intelligence Authorization Act:

Whoever, being an officer or employee of the United States, a former or retired officer or employee of the United States, any other person with authorized access to classified information, or any other person formerly with authorized access to classified information, knowingly and willfully discloses, or attempts to disclose, any classified information acquired as a result of such person's authorized access to classified information to a person (other than an officer or employee of the United States) who is not authorized access to such classified information, knowing that the person is not authorized access to such classified information, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

Was there "method to my madness"? Sure, however, it was also surprisingly easy for me to get bipartisan agreement to the language in both Houses of Congress – and also agreement from the White House in a "SAP," a "Statement of Administration Policy." And, after all, who could possibly disagree with it? It was "motherhood and apple pie," as they say in Washington. I held my breath.

Then some media lobbyist must have actually read the legislation and the whole media industry came unglued and went to "general quarters" to defeat actual enactment of the law. So, notwithstanding that the law had already passed both Houses of Congress with bipartisan support, they got to Bill Clinton with an enormous and personal effort: And, Clinton vetoed the law in his final days as president.

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At least the Washington Post  – one of the world class publishers in this country, along with the New York Times, of leaked U.S. classified information – showed  its "true colors" in this vapid editorial about the legislation:

"We don't pretend to be neutral on this subject. Newspapers publish leaked material; our reporters solicit leaks. And some of the leaked material we publish is classified. But it is a mistake to imagine that all leaks of classified information are bad." Editorial, The Washington Post, Aug. 24, 2001

I don't know about you, but I don't want any newspaper editor deciding whether to declassify presumptively sensitive national security information – they simply have no business doing it, regardless of how "hot" the story is or how well connected their "leaker" source is.

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Hopefully, it's this sad fact of political life in Washington that has the Obama Administration actively going after classified "leakers" – more than any administration has ever done. But far more effective would be some form of an "official secrets act" to better protect our nation.

Stated simply: It should be against the law to publish national security secrets – the First Amendment does not protect such irresponsible "journalism," no matter how salacious the story might be. And, in this respect, we should be no different than our Canadian or British friends – no one there dares publish their national security secrets and no one here should dare publish ours.