It’s About Time

Jack Shafer in Slate is bemoaning the idea that the US Government might actually start enforcing the laws against disclosure of classified information:

Under the espionage statute, continues Johnston, “a government official or a private citizen who passed classified information to anyone else in or outside the government could potentially be charged with a felony, if they transferred the information to someone without a security clearance to receive it.”

National-security reporters—none of whom have clearances—receive classified information for a living. If the government used espionage law to investigate government leaks to the press, the effect would be an unofficial secrets act criminalizing thousands, if not tens of thousands, of annual conversations between sources and reporters.

Shafer goes on to bemoan how awful this would be, noting,

For one thing, no Department of Defense, National Security Council, Department of State, or White House staffer with security clearances would ever speak—on or off the record—to any reporter about any sensitive topic. The sheer legal exposure would prove too much. Knowing they’re explicitly liable for indictment, they’ll just stop talking to reporters.

Well, damnit, good. I’ve got news for you, Jack–what they’re doing is already illegal. Right or wrong, it’s the law, and they’re breaking it every time they leak something that’s classified to a newspaper employee.

Speaking as just one of the multitudes of “little people” with security clearances who’re regularly reminded of the severe legal penalties for just making an honest mistake in failing to protect classified information (never mind deliberately revealing anything), I can’t say I feel any sympathy for the bigger wigs in D.C. who just as regularly commit violations that would put me in jail.

The law applies to everybody equally–or at least it ought to. Pat Leahy, Dick Shelby, Sandy-freakin’-Berger and everybody who works for them ought to face the same jeopardies I do when it comes to protecting this information, and if Jack Shafer and “national security reporters” don’t like it, tough.

You want to try and change those laws and/or their penalties, go right ahead. It’s a free country. But don’t sit there and tell me the “big boys” deserve the special privilege they’ve been getting from federal prosecutors who don’t want to cross the press.


31 Responses to “It’s About Time”

  1. Allen H Says:

    You hit the nail on the head. Leaking classified information by officials costs this country millions of dollars not to mention the jeopardy it puts our agents.

  2. Boyd Says:

    Speaking as someone who worked in the intelligence field (cryptology, to be specific) throughout my 20 year Navy career, my instant reaction is complete agreement.

    But on further reflection, I strongly believe that much information gets classified when it shouldn’t be (not so much in cryptology, but elsewhere).

    Which doesn’t excuse those who think they “know better” and release this information to reporters. But those idiots who make information classified to protect themselves or others from being embarrassed really piss me off because they undermine the legitimate effort to keep secret information SECRET.

  3. Robin Roberts Says:

    I think that the point is that the media invented this fake scandal, it will be completely hilarious if they are the ones actually harmed by it.

  4. Dave Says:

    A-fuckin’-men, Will. Pisses me off SO much to see leaks that get brushed off because some reporter who doesn’t even know what the words ‘national security’ mean is in a hurry to scoop an article.

  5. Adam Says:

    It’s like the people scandalized by the fact that Reagan fired the airport workers for doing what they swore, in writing, never to do.

    Rules are rules. You can debate their merit and try to change them, but rule of law is important, some might say.

  6. rbj Says:

    Another interesting quote:
    “Espionage law was previously used successfully in a Fourth Estate-related case to convict Samuel L. Morison in 1985. Morison, a civilian employee of the Navy, sent “secret” spy photos to Jane’s Defense Weekly, a publication, not a foreign power. ”
    Um Jack, the USSR did read Jane’s Defense Weekly.

  7. Tim P Says:

    I have to agree. But what amazes me is you have men and women of good character and judgement, who go through background checks and other qualifications criteria and are held to very high expectations for top security clearances. And then you have politicians and appointed beauracrats, who I generally wouldn’t trust with a can of soup, who are given access to the same level of information by virtue of their position. Don’t misunderstand, I support civilian control of the military, but the incongruity is sometimes amazing. Just look at Sandy Berger for example.

  8. Russell Newquist Says:

    Speaking as another one of the little guys with a clearance,


  9. E.K. Says:

    There are few worse ways to end a day at work than to have one’s work invalidated because someone decides to leak one aspect of it or another to the press. It is utterly galling when someone thinks that the benefit to their newspaper or television show that comes from revealing classified information is greater than the national security requirement that brought about the classification in the first place. Let us not forget that “national security”, overused term that it is, really stands for “security of lives and livelihoods of the individual people who make up our nation”. Deliberate disclosure of classified information is illegal and absolutely should have unpleasant consequences. Amen!

  10. Mike Runs Says:

    Hmmm… Sandy Berger can DESTROY stolen classified documents for a relatively minor fee, whereas us little folks would be breaking rocks in Ft. Leavenworth… FOR A LONG DAMN TIME. Let’s enforce the laws – equally.

  11. John Says:

    Speaking of Sandy Berger, he was just charged with reckless driving in Fairfax County. That’s a violation of his probation. Let’s see what happens next.

  12. Ken Says:

    “But on further reflection, I strongly believe that much information gets classified when it shouldn’t be (not so much in cryptology, but elsewhere).”

    And perhaps stuff that shouldn’t be classified wouldn’t be if the laws against disseminating it were rigorously enforced.

    Actually, the best way to get rid of a lot of dumb laws is to enforce the living crap out of them. Support for some of them would evaporate overnight.

  13. Billy Fish Says:

    So does Jake Shafer thinks Karl Rove is off the hook for ‘outing’ Valerie Plame?

    Just wondering

  14. Roy Lofquist Says:

    I have two very dear friends who I have known since 1957. We all three served in the military, two of us in the Army Security Agency and one in the Air Force Security Service. We are all now retired and in our dotage. We reminisce, but we still do not mention anything to each other that we don’t know for sure is in the public domain. Why? Duty, honor, humility.

    I have met many others over the years who have knowledge gained that was classified under codewords which are themselves highly classified. We know who we are. We share a brotherhood. We never talk about it. Why? Duty, honor, humilty.

    We are not in any way exceptional. We did our duty. We know of those who did not come back. We don’t talk about it. Do the American people have a right to know? Not our decision.

    Did we do anything illegal or immoral? Not to my knowledge. What do we think about those who break the trust? Gentlemen do not use those words in public.

  15. Richard Says:

    Amen. End of sermon. Ya all go home and eat now.

  16. richard mcenroe Says:

    Oh, come on. What jeopardy. Leahy only got one CIA agent killed… that’s a small price to pay for good press sourcing, right?

  17. rosignol Says:

    Speaking of Sandy Berger, he was just charged with reckless driving in Fairfax County. That’s a violation of his probation. Let’s see what happens next.

    I hear the noodle is already in the pot….

  18. Larry J Says:

    I’m a defense contractor (lovingly known to the Air Force as “bloodsucking contractor scum”). Due to the nature of our work, everyone has to have a security clearance. We’ve been told in no uncertain terms that anyone who commits a security violation will be fired. There is no doubt in our minds that this is true.

    The reason for such harsh treatment is simple – if the government decides we can’t be trusted to safeguard classified information, they can decertify us from handling it. That would result in a couple hundred of us to lose our jobs. We don’t screw around.

    Now, why shouldn’t government officials, politicians, and bureaucrats be held to the same standards as us lowly contractor scum? There isn’t a valid reason on Earth to explain letting them get away with actions that would get us fired, if not imprisoned. For a start, Sandy Berger should be in jail for a very long time.

  19. shadowmom1 Says:

    If it’s classified, it’s classified. It should not be shared – especially with the press!

    These (the press) are the same peole who think the public has a right to know where our troops are going to attack next and where they are hiding out. They give our enemies way too much info that no one really has “the right to know”.

  20. David March Says:

    Remember the furor that erupted when Daniel Ellsburg gave a copy of a secret Rand Corporation history of U.S. decision making in the Vietnam War to the New York Times?

    Ellsburg was a paid consultant who had helped draft the documents tracing the events, thinking, and rationale behind our deepening involvement in the conflict, from our promises made to France in World War II, through their atrocious post-war mismanagement of the region, Dien Bien Phu and the disastrous battle of the Plaines des Jarres, right up to the reluctant implementation of withdrawal by Nixon.

    Our policies regarding Southeast Asia were determined in turn by SIX presidents and all their advisors and counselors: Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon.

    Some years after the publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers, I came across a used copy of the New York Times paperback edition. In the intervening years I’d read a fair number of books on the diplomatic, economic, strategic and tactical decisions of the countries involved in the two great wars of this century. Armed with the perspective of those, the reading the Pentagon Papers struck me with how glacially inevitable the whole exercise was.

    The fuss at the time was that our Government had LIED to the public, simply to maintain a useless effort they knew would fail. The successive administrations of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon each claimed that U.S. abandonment of South Vietnam and other Southeast Asian allies would lead to a communist bloodbath in the region, and undermine confidence among U.S. allies worldwide. This logic was termed

  21. EatBergers Says:

    Sandy Berger makes me sick. A) He gets let off for such a huge crime. B) The media, since he isn’t a Republican, ignores a story which would have spent the past year with Newsweek cover stories.

    Now he violates his parole. This is a perfect test of this two-time legal system. I can’t tell you how upset I am about the stolen and destroyed documents. It just absolutely amazes me that the story never went anymore. This parole thing is a small consolation prize, but the fact is that they wouldn’t go light on any one else. So, we shall see.


  22. JackAssfestival Says:

    Damn Skippy

  23. North Canton Airline and Storm Door Company Says:

    Prosecuting Transference of Classified Information: And the problem is…?

    There is a large cottage industry among journalists that specialize in intelligence matters, and they routinely are on the receiving end of material that ranges from privileged to top secret.

  24. Slartibartfast Says:

    Agreed, Will. What Berger did would have gotten any of us terminated, at the very least.

    There’s another example out there: John Deutch. Deutch did things that would have gotten me put in prison (probably) and got to keep his clearance and continue working with classified data. Baffling. has a whole lot of stuff on him if you’re curious.

  25. Slartibartfast Says:

    Some of what has points to some interesting activities of one George Tenet, BTW.

  26. hey Says:

    breaching confidentiality on classified documents should be a capital crime.

    no options, no possible plea bargaining, no lesser includeds. hang them or let them go.

    suddenly many fewer dem staffers and reporters, plus a more secure country. win win!

  27. Bloodthirsty Warmonger Says:

    As one who was entrusted with a Top Secret security clearance and to the best of my knowledge, never compromised classified information, I find this double standard quite offensive.

  28. Prague Says:

    I’ll agree with pretty much all of the comments.

    Yes, information is often overclassified, but better that than giving information away. There are far too many instances where we basically wrap everything up in a bow and hand it over to our enemies. “Here you go! Come destroy us!”

    Yes, there are accidental leaks, particularly with information that’s inadvertently become unclassified. I used to love it as an open source analyst, and then I got a clearance. My dislike for Bill Gertz et al began shortly after that.

    And it’s not just politicians and those who get clearances based on their positions who aren’t punished. Higher-ups within the various agencies who commit security violations are often protected, too. Generally, when I’ve seen that happen, there’s a valuable analyst lost when they become a scapegoat.

    It disgusts me.

  29. RA Says:

    Its time we start throwing leakers and publishers of confidential information in the clink and throwing away the key. That should include editors.

  30. holdfast Says:

    I was once a combat engineer in a NATO army. When I took my Sgts course, I could not attend the lectures on nuke demolitions because I couldn’t get the clearance in time (having been born in what is now essentially a commie country – same thing for a friend born in Poland). Yet at the same time, an Ex of mine with a summer job as a gopher for a Federal MP had no problem getting a security clearance – which she needed since the Fed Govt was in the habit of classifying EVERYTHING at least secret. 99% of the material so classified had absolutely squat to do with national security – rather it was potentially politically embarassing. This practice totally devalued the whole concept of security. By debasing classifications this way, the government was practically begging the media and others to treat security as a joke.

    I don’t know if the situation in the ‘states is the same – but if it is, then I can understand (though not condone) why the media thinks that it is a joke. The media IS supposed to find out about political gaffes. If you lump those in with matters of real national security, you get what you deserve – of couse, the folks in the field who get hurt don’t deserve it, but then they never do.

    Remember, you don’t have to love the f*cking army, but the army loves f*cking you.

    Nothing is too good for the troops, and nothing is what they shall get.

  31. JAK Says:

    Those of that take security seriously would be breaking rocks in Levenworth for a long time if we did what Berger did. Instead, Berger is out breaking the speed limit (88 mph on I-66). Makes you wonder if there aren’t some elites running loose in the country.

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