A Follow-up to An Aside on Classified Information Handling

Politico has published an article on the recent classified information leak I wrote about here, and this article from The New Republic is sort of a rebuttal to it.  Both of these were actually published the day before mine, but it took a week before I saw them.  In any case, these articles have prompted me to write a follow-on to that short piece we posted for two reasons: within the Politico and TNR pieces there is a reinforcement of the points I made; and because some people have a profound lack of understanding about classified information.

First, the piece from Politico illuminates two key points about breaches involving classified information that I had tried to make.  In mentioning the Valerie Plame case, it shows that the leaks are a bipartisan issue.  It also provides further evidence that leaks are not prosecuted equitably.  When the rank-and-file are involved in a disclosure they are highly likely to feel the full weight of the law, but when high-ranking individuals are involved, they will probably never be subject to even a serious investigation of the issue.  As I said before, this unequal application of justice in these cases removes meaning from all of the justice meted out.

Second, Nathan Pippenger’s article in The New Republic takes up a thesis presented in the Politico piece by NY Times editor, Dean Baquet.  Baquet and Pippenger treat the distinction between a leak of classified information and “good reporting” as a blurry one where good reporting can gain access to classified information through a hardnosed investigative journalist and a leak is, apparently, when an official just posts classified information to the web in WikiLeaks fashion.  This is a false dichotomy though as good reporting and a leak are not opposite ends of the same spectrum.  A reporter can do a good job of tracking leads, following up on public information, and doing a thorough investigation which involves tying pieces together and drawing conclusions.  However, when some of that information has been classified, then without question a leak has occurred.  There is no grey area here.  The premise put forth by Dean Baquet and restated by Nathan Pippenger is fundamentally flawed.

The reason this is important and worth pointing out is because it represents a profound misunderstanding of classified information and a leak involving classified information.  Information which has been classified is clearly marked at the top and bottom of every page, and with abbreviated annotations of each and every paragraph and section to clearly indicate which paragraph/section within a classified document contains classified or unclassified information.  Printed material is placed under brightly marked cover sheets.  These materials are to be protected in certain facilities, and are to be transported only through secure means and by approved individuals.  Yes, this means that you can have the clearance necessary to view certain information, but not have the authorization to move that same information from one location to another.

Further, let’s assume that the information was classified at a high level.  It is, after all, highly sensitive information about ongoing or recently ended military initiatives.  Going from this assumption, which is probably a safe one to make, not only would it be a breach of protocol to share the information with a NY Times reporter, but it would also be a breach of protocol to share the information with someone who also has the same level of security clearance, but who works on different classified programs!  Since this fictitious individual has the appropriate clearance level, but does not have need to know for the program under which operation Olympic Games was conducted, the source of the leak would still be in breach of their responsibility to protect that classified information.  Even this scenario would still be considered a leak.

The notion that “good reporting” can uncover national security information that has been appropriately classified without a “leak” occurring somewhere along the way is a laughable one.  Baquet and Pippenger demonstrate a profound naivete on the subject of national security and classified information, and diminish the significance of these issues.