This was published in The New York Times.
Full Disclosure on Leaks
By Robert Booth
Published: October 22, 2003
Published: October 22, 2003
Secrets are created every day in the federal government: when National Security Agency personnel create codes, when C.I.A. case officers talk to their spies, when F.B.I. agents speak to their sources, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff discuss troop movements. When these secrets are revealed to the press, it is known as a leak. Not all leaks are created equal, however. Just as the motives for leaking differ, so do the consequences of a leak.
The first issue is legality. Before gaining access to national security information, government employees must take an oath affirming their responsibility to safeguard sensitive information. This is not a novel concept. On Nov. 9, 1775, members of the Second Continental Congress signed an oath of secrecy to protect the cause of liberty and their lives.
If government employees fail to uphold their oath, they can be prosecuted. Nevertheless, leaks of confidential government information have been a constant of every administration since World War II.
The first kind of leak is the approved leak. Most leaks to the press are orchestrated by the administration, which uses an anonymous ''senior government official'' to communicate its views to the public without having to go on the record. Such leaks do not harm national security interests and often the information disclosed is part of a coordinated administration campaign to win support for its position.
The second category of leaks is the unapproved leak of damaging but not truly sensitive information. This occurs when a government employee, without any supervisory approval, releases restricted government information to the press. The information, while sometimes unsettling to government officials or employees, does not jeopardize national security.
Often the source of an unapproved leak may have access to protected government files and assumes that the press will be willing to report any information, especially if it might be controversial. This was certainly the case, for example, when a worker at the Pentagon leaked some contents of Linda Tripp's personnel file in 1998.
Unapproved leaks can have serious consequences, however. Stuart Eizenstat, former undersecretary of state and deputy secretary of the treasury, bitterly complained in his book ''Imperfect Justice'' about leaks to the press that he said hurt American negotiations with Swiss and German officials seeking financial compensation for Jewish victims of the Nazi era.
The most serious kind of leak is the unauthorized disclosure of national security information. Robert Novak's revelation that the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson was a C.I.A. ''operative'' falls into this category. Mr. Novak's source, by revealing the wife's name without approval from the C.I.A., has potentially compromised national security.
There are two main reasons unauthorized disclosures occur. One is to undermine the administration; the other is to silence a critic. All unauthorized disclosures are committed by people who ultimately wish to influence outcomes, events and opinions. In addition to endangering national security interests, such disclosures also subject their sources to prosecution.
We do not yet know how much damage was caused by Robert Novak's column about Mr. Wilson. But we do know that as long as there is a federal government, leaks will continue -- and that people who substitute their personal judgment for their sworn oaths are leading America down a very slippery slope.
Drawings (Drawings by Bill Russell)