Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Ship of State is Leaking

Our leadership in Washington has gotten itself all worked up into a frenzy over leaks of classified information, particularly intelligence and national security related information, to otherwise perfectly respectable and pliable journalists and their publications.  Are our executive agencies, congressional leaders and lobbyists up in arms over the outrages, atrocities and even war crimes revealed in these leaks?  Good heavens no - they are furious that these American activities did not remain secret, concealed from the public they ostensibly serve, visible only to themselves by dint of their great power and wisdom.  Or something.

The tradition of the government leak goes well back in history, even predating its most famous practitioner, the anonymous-until-deceased "Deep Throat", but in the years since the Vietnam War the increasingly broad secrecy around government operations, in a kind of developing "classification culture" has driven a massive increase in the number and regularity of leaks.  Generally, they fall into two categories - ideological and political.  Political leaks are by far the most common - when one faction or party leaks classified information that advances their specific agenda, makes them look good or tarnishes their opposition.  These are really just another case of elected officials using journalists to advance political goals, but they at least also have the benefit of increasing transparency, however secondary or unintended that goal might be. Better, from a societal point of view, is the much more rare ideological leak, where a government employee is aware of something the government is keeping secret that truly offends the conscience.  In a long tradition from Ellsberg to Manning they work with journalists to expose the information, and usually pay a high price for doing so.

There is often some confusion between a leaker and a 'whisle blower', which is not terribly surprising because there can be some significant overlap, especially in those cases where the driving force is ideology or morality.  But in the main, it is not helpful to conflate the two.  A whistle blower may provide classified information to a journalist in order to draw attention to a particular act of wrongdoing, often criminal, being covered up by government leaders, but the whistle blower's goal is not exposure qua exposure, but rather to correct and/or punish behaviors and address grievances.  The more common leak has no agenda beyond exposure, and no expectation that anything other than political leverage might come of it.  However, under the foul GW Bush administration, and increasingly under Barack Obama, both leakers and whistle blowers are routinely prosecuted, punished and ostracized. even as the government nullifies their efforts to invoke change behind state secrets and national security claims - claims that, interestingly, cannot themselves be verified or adjudicated.

Romney accuses Obama of leaking classified information for political purposes.  People in congress stand up and rail in apparent anguish at these criminal acts.  In a classic window into the worldview of the political leadership, it is the leak that threatens national security, not the underlying facts and actions themselves.  There is no compunction around committing the war crimes, terrorist acts and routine violations of sovereignty, only about letting the people who elected them actually know about them.  So Congress hears the complaints from all around them, so it becomes clear that Something Must Be Done.  But this is a hard problem - it is Congress itself, between the elected representatives and their staffers, that relies most heavily on tactical leaks for political gain.  So they must be very careful in crafting any legislation to address this "problem" - it must appear to be functional without actually being effective.  Where to turn for such an advanced level of corruption and cynicism?  Why, Diane Feinstein of course.

Senator Feinstein's bill, approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee today, would make the so-called 'background brieifings' typically provided by intelligence agency analysts illegal.  Analysts could still speak on the record, but only the agency Director, Deputy Director or Public Affairs officers could  “provide background or off-the-record information regarding intelligence activities to the media.” There. That should solve the problem, right? Or maybe not. From the Washington Post:

Feinstein acknowledged that she knew of no evidence tying those leaks or others to background sessions, which generally deal broadly with analysts’ interpretations of developments overseas and avoid discussions of the operations of the CIA or other spy services.

There, you see? The answer is apparently draconian measures that actually make it harder for government to function while completely failing to address the problem of classified leaks.

Everyone knows what the problem is, and how to fix it.  The American government classifies far too much information, including banal everyday documents and communications that have no basis for secrecy.  As a result, no one takes the classification of documents particularly seriously, and having access to classified material only provides yet another source of political leverage to those who wish to make use of it.  If only truly critical intelligence and national security information was classified, people would have a much greater tendency to protect that data, and the government would find it much harder to conceal everything from criminal activity to stupid errors in judgement.  Which is ultimately why the culture of secrecy will only grow, and there will be a corresponding rise in leaks.

There is a very interesting paradox in all this.  The American corporate press has become, if not a lapdog at least a dog on a very short leash, more often acting as 'stenographers' in the words of Glenn Greenwald, happily writing "Shape of the Earth - Opinions Differ" stories and accepting without challenge the most blatant of lies.  And yet, when presented with a leak, even one as sensitive as the recent "Presidential Kill List" and "Stuxnet" stories, they still seem to have a vestigial attachment to the original principles of news reporting and, much to the chagrin of their corporate ownership, actually serve their most hallowed purpose and publish the 'scoop'.   For all the cries from government itself about the danger in leaking classified information, it is government itself that thrives on those leaks - and the leaks may be the only thing remaining that drives real journalism.


  1. The American government classifies far too much information, including banal everyday documents and communications that have no basis for secrecy.

    I feel that this is a symptom of a problem.

    We're an excessively militaristic and deeply corrupt plutocracy. Think of how much money and effort is spent on keeping the populace from knowing what we actually do to people who live overseas.

    People like Dianne Feinstein are the problem. Rich, ridiculously conflicted, and untouchable.