Does Leaking Secrets Damage National Security? Last week's assignment of two federal prosecutors to investigate disclosures of national security information might have been the first shot in a new war on leaks. Advocates of open government say they fear an overreaction.
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Does Leaking Secrets Damage National Security?

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Does Leaking Secrets Damage National Security?

Does Leaking Secrets Damage National Security?

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

More now on the controversy over leaked information of national security information. A controversy set off by reports of a kill list of terror suspects. Two prosecutors have been appointed to investigate whether laws were broken in leaks about cyberattacks on Iran and the decision making behind drone strikes. The director of national intelligence is expected soon to order new measures to fight leaks. And some members of Congress are proposing new anti-leaking laws they say will protect national security. But as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, the issue is not clear cut.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Here's an important point: leaking classified information is not necessarily against the law. A prosecutor has to prove the disclosure harms the United States or helps a foreign government. There may be times when an administration talks about an otherwise secret operation for legitimate strategic reasons.

With the killing last year of Osama bin Laden, the Obama administration knew the whole world would be drawing conclusions. Christopher Paul of the Rand Corporation says, under the circumstances, it made sense to divulge some details just to take charge of the narrative.

CHRISTOPHER PAUL: Recognizing that, gee, here's an operation that's going to send a message. What message do we want it to send? How can we present it in such a way or talk about it in such a way that it's closer to our broader strategic objectives?

GJELTEN: A top concern here is to protect intelligence sources and methods, maybe an ongoing operation. Officials also worry some foreign government won't trust the U.S. any more if its secrets aren't kept. But there's also the need for people to know what their government is up to. Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, notes that government spokespersons, after careful consideration, routinely let some secrets come out.

STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Classified information is disclosed not to undermine or challenge policy, or at least not only for those reasons, but to explain it, to defend it, and to interpret it for the public.

GJELTEN: Some other cases: Joel Brenner, a former general counsel at the National Security Agency, notes that government whistleblowers may leak information to reporters in order to force a change in some policy or operation.

JOEL BRENNER: And then there are people who leak because the process of being courted by a reporter is so flattering, it so much increases peoples' sense of self-importance.

GJELTEN: Is that right?

BRENNER: Yeah, oh, definitely. They'll want to talk.

GJELTEN: The latest controversy involves disclosures about how the president and his staff choose the targets of missile strikes from drone aircraft, also the use of a secret al-Qaida agent to uncover a bomb plot. And, finally, a decision by Presidents Bush and Obama to use a cyberweapon to damage nuclear facilities in Iran. Joel Brenner says he sees a possible public interest only in the case of U.S. drone policy.

BRENNER: Spilling information about the takedown of a bomber in Yemen, on the other hand, or a computer network operation against the Iranians is a different matter.

GJELTEN: The director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, was so incensed by leaks about the Yemen bomber that he ordered an inquiry. An intelligence official says Clapper is now posed to authorize lie detector tests across all intelligence agencies if necessary in order to stop leaks. And he's expected to have the examiners routinely ask testees whether they have discussed classified information with a member of the press. Steven Aftergood, the secrecy expert, worries about an overreaction - by outraged members of Congress, for example.

AFTERGOOD: If Congress were to assert a hard line that each and every disclosure of classified information must be punished, a lot of the news gathering as we have known it would have to shut down.

GJELTEN: In 2000, Congress passed just such a law. But President Clinton vetoed it, saying it could have chilled legitimate activities that are at the heart of democracy.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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