Sunday, December 25, 2005

Good Leaks, Bad Leaks?

By Melissa Boyle Mahle

In his commentary in the LA Times entitled the “Plame Platoon is AWOL on New Leaks” Max Boot demonstrated the insidiousness of politicizing intelligence. Boot challenged Plame supporters, presuming their position on leaks would be determined by politics, not principles. Boot’s argument said more about him than others when this normally intelligent commentator slipped into the good leaks, bad leaks argument by defending the outing of Valerie Plame and criticizing the exposure of secret prisons, renditions and secret wiretaps. So here is the rejoinder from one “high-minded” intelligence professional.

All leaks that compromise intelligence sources and methods are bad. Some destroy the ability of clandestine operators to do their job. Others shut down productive collection operations. Beyond the damage that a leak does at the operational level, leaks done for political reasons can undermine the credibility of the intelligence community by putting it at risk of becoming a political pull-toy.

The fact that the intelligence community is leaking like a sieve is a good indication that something is broken. That something is the intelligence policy. Post 9/11, intelligence policy has had to transform to meet emerging threats of domestic and international terrorism and weapons proliferation. Our intelligence community as set up and evolved since 1947 was not well suited to the task at hand. In the remaking of the intelligence community, there has been great confusion. This confusion has been fed by a belief by some policymakers and intelligence practitioners that intelligence policy is not public policy. In other words, nothing in the intelligence world belongs in the public domain.

Intelligence policy is not the same as intelligence practices. Policy is the framework, the laws, the missions, the authorities, the guidelines and the limitations. Intelligence practices are sources and methods, the specifics of how intelligence officers collect, analyze and disseminate secret information and the people who do it.

Intelligence policy should be public policy while intelligence practices should remain behind the veil of secrecy. Why? Secret intelligence policy is incompatible with democracy. If Americans suspect the Administration of conducting domestic spying outside of legal review as a policy, the intelligence community risks being viewed as a secret tool of domestic oppression. The policy must be defensible before the American public. On the wiretap controversy, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged the conscious decision to not seek to change the FISA law to give NSA additional emergency provisions. During a 19 December 2005 press conference, Gonzales said:

“We have had discussions with Congress in the past – certain members of Congress – as to whether or not FISA could be amended to allow us to adequately deal with this kind of threat, and we were advised that that would be difficult, if not impossible.”

Such a position begs the question of what else is the intelligence community secretly doing that the Administration is afraid to vet with the public? This is just the kind of question that makes intelligence officials quake in their boots because it is the first volley of a political mud-slinging contest on why we should not trust the political party in power and, by extension, the intelligence community under its control.

Inquiring minds might ask how should the issue of domestic wiretaps by NSA been treated? The first opportunity was in December 2002 when the intelligence oversight committees from both the House and the Senate submitted their joint report investigating the 9/11 attacks. The gap between foreign and domestic intelligence collection was clearly identified in relationship to NSA authorities. Based on the public findings in this report, the Administration could have sought to amend FISA. The opportunity came up again when the 9/11 Commission submitted its report, reaching similar conclusions. The Patriot Act could have been a legislative vehicle. There would have been no need to get down into the weeds on the targets or methods, which unfortunately are appearing in the press as investigative journalists tap into knowledgeable sources who are either outraged or defensive of the political maneuvering.

The legislative route on intelligence policy, however, was shut down. So was the Congressional oversight. As Senator John D. Rockefeller IV described the oversight briefing he, Senator Pat Roberts, Representatives Porter Goss and Jan Harman received, they were not given any avenue to actually exercise oversight because they were not permitted to do anything to look into the legality or advisability of the wiretap program. It reflects poorly on oversight system if the only path to registering concern is for a senator to write a memorandum for the file that is sealed from everyone’s knowledge because the security concerns. The intelligence community benefits from a robust oversight process by elected officials because it provides a democratic seal of approval as long as the American public has confidence that the process is real.

In summation, Mr. Boot, the NSA wiretapping leak has harmed the intelligence community because the leak exposed both secret policy and effective practices. Americans will justifiably have less confidence in, and demand more checks on, US intelligence; al-Qa’ida and other terrorists groups will be motivated to tighten security practices on telephone and electronic communications with cell members in the US making collection more difficult. Just like in the case of the political outing of Valerie Plame, which caused a well-qualified officer specialized in WMD to be removed from the playing field, our intelligence capabilities end up paying the price. This is why "high-minded" professionals take issue with commentators who play politics with intelligence.


Blogger Alexander Stuart said...


Your post on Good Leaks, Bad Leaks is excellent and very clearly argued - as was your post on Torture and Renditions.

It is refreshing to have these matters explained and analyzed by an intelligence professional, particularly in the current climate of arrogance and secrecy from the present administration.

As you argue, it is hard to see why the Administration needs to flout the law, when it is in a position of using and, if need be, amending it in full public view, without compromising intelligence assets.

Clearly we need all the tools at our disposal - including a more informed and empathetic foreign policy - to maintain national security in the post 9/11 world, but if the intelligence services are abused and the integrity of the government using or abusing them is called into question, it serves no one's interests but our enemies.

I look forward to your future posts - your blog is great.

12/30/2005 8:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"All leaks that compromise intelligence sources and methods are bad." Brava, Ms. Mahle. I was sickened when I first read about the leaks just thinking of the assets, noc's, etc. out in the field whose lives are put at risk whenever intel is leaked. I agree, it's always a bad thing, never good. One thing that bothers me is that, besides the fact that an intel officer leaked this information (and, seemingly without proof as we haven't been given a lick of that, yet, just alot of she said he said about it and therefore, imho it's still gossip and inuendo), the journalists seem to feel the need to publish the leak. This is what I have such a difficult time with, because any journalist worth his or her salt wouldn't publish something as fact without some solid proof, ie photos, verification from higher ups. I mean, I could tell my neighbor that my mama's green and has snakes growing out of her head, but she's got common sense and isn't going to take what I say as gospel without some hard evidence to back it up.

And, then, I also have to ask, where is this journalist's patriotism? I have lost a great deal (more) faith in our media, because if someone came to me with information like that, I'd report it to her superiors, for one, and B) I wouldn't tell a soul. Where's the common sense? Everyone's just out for themselves these days, looking out for number one and to hell with the fact that someone's brother or husband could get killed because of information they leak and for what reason? Just to make themselves look good, look wise, to look like they're SOMEBODY. If that's not a huge tip-off that that reporter has some insecurity issues, I don't know what is. And, it really pisses me off that she won two prizes for her reporting, none of which, as I said, gave any real hard evidence supporting her claims. For all we know, she could've made all that stuff up off the top of her head, attached a name to it and ran with it. I know that's not exactly what went down, but I mean, that's the impression such shoddy unprofessionalism leaves one with. I for one, won't read anything that reporter has to say, ever again, and certainly wouldn't support any effort she tags her name to.

I'm glad that no one's been killed becuase of this, but it's the second major leak in the last several months and has done serious damage to the US relations with our peers, not to mention our credibility with our enemies. I'd guess it probably set us back a good ten years. I only wish the committee had been more dilligent in it's investigation and prosecution, because the agent, her husband and the reporter should have consequences attached to their actions, but as per usual, they'll get off scot free and the rest of us will have to take it in the chin for them. And that's where the politicians let the country down. I'm extremely dissapointed and dissilusioned right now about all of this.

You know, something I've learned growing up in this beautiful land is that there are people who are openly prejudice and those who hide it well under a cloak of apathy, or good intentions. The ones who are open about thier hatred and ignorance are easy to deal with, because you can pretty much write them off as insane, or you can confront them head on, letting them know you won't be pushed around and intimidated by their foolishness; you know what you're dealing with on a day to day basis and it's not sugar coated or dressed up to look like something else. The ones who hide their hatred are much more tiresome, difficult to deal with, because they've learned to couch it in polite language, political correctness and good intentions. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Unless you put your foot where your mouth is, no amount of "meaning to", or "trying to", or deceitfulness is going to get you anywhere close to the pearly gates. And people are willing to tolerate that kind of "polite" bigotry, because it's easier to live with it, than confront it, and for some, it even justifies their own mores without making them dress up as the villains they truly are. It takes alot more willpower, alot more dilligence and guts to confront those kinds of people and I just wonder sometimes if we're not turning into a nation full of asskissers when I see the politicians kow-tow to a princess journalist like that one, simply because they don't want to offend the media, they want their agendas pushed forward, they don't want to make waves, and most of all, they are willing to support anyone, even an enemy of the state, whether accidental or not, in order to discredit this particular administration. It sticks in my craw, to use my grandpa's phrase, that they're getting away with this shit with less than a slap on the wrist. Heck, I scold my own daughter worse than they've gotten when I hear her gossip about a friend.

I feel like that's a fair analogy and one that works with this situation, also. We're fighting terrorists, people who blatantly hate our country and what we stand for. Yet, the enemies of our nation, imho, are those who undermine it from within as these people have and people like them are equally as dangerous, because they remain hidden, until something like this happens to bring them out into the light. But, then, we can thank the media for whitewashing the whole thing and glorifying the perpetrators, instead of callign them what they are: traitors, benedict arnolds, selfish despots who only care about their own self-gratification and self-glorification, and the stroking of their own fragile egos. Ridiculous twattle! It makes me sick that any of them, especially the ones who knew better, would spout off and put people's lives at risk. And that journalist is every bit as guilty as the leakers.

It's disgusting, and more so, because nothing will be done about it. They won't pay any consequenses for their actions. At the very least, they should be required to apologize to their co-workers and colleagues, not to mention the noc's and local assets. Hell, they're probably already looking at movie deals, book deals, and all the other ways they'll get rich off it. That reporter's already raking in her loot, right? It really sucks that the media is glorifying her, simply because a) she's a member of the club, so they'll all close ranks, whether she was morally and ethically right or not, (morals? ethics? are those two words even in the dictionary anymore?) and 2) the media will take anyone's side against this administration.

I'm sorry this is so long, I didn't realize I had so much resentment built up inside, but I guess there's still some residual bitterness from the last leak. Some of us are making huge sacrifices for this country, risking our lives, risking our family's lives, have family members who're risking their lives and then when stuff like this happens and you think, man, I coulda been killed because that bitch shot her mouth off, or my brother/hubby could've been killed becaus of that leak, you just wish that their punishment would be to get sent out to the front lines of the war and made to wear a big huge sign with a target on it, saying, "Kick me", er, I mean, "Bomb me"! but, they're so oblivious to others the message would probably still be too subtle for them.

Thanks for setting the story straight, there, Ms. Mahle. Thanks for taking the unpopular stand because it's the right one. I'm looking forward to your future posts. The blog looks great. Good luck on your book, too. I'll be more brief next time I leave a comment. :/

4/30/2006 5:13 AM  

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