Politics & Policy

A Brief History of Classified Leaks

No public official has leaked a CIA employee's identity since...oh, 1995 or so.

The Joe Wilson brouhaha has been front-page news in the Washington Post for three days, the top story on the cable talking-heads shows, network news, and now the subject of a partisan rhetorical showdown on the Senate floor. Obviously, this bizarre circumstance, in which a prominent Washington official is alleged to have leaked the identity of a CIA employee and endangered intelligence sources, is unprecedented and unparalleled, right?

Well, not exactly.

In 1995, then-Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, Democrat of New Jersey, was told by a State Department employee that a paid CIA informant, Guatemalan Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, was involved in the killing of the husband of an American citizen.

Then a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Torricelli complained the CIA was doing nothing to uncover the facts of the case for the widow, Jennifer Harbury.

Of course, Alpirez’s identity and ties to the CIA were classified; Torricelli revealed them anyway. In March 1995, Torricelli listed Alpirez’s name and his connection to the CIA in a letter to President Clinton and gave a copy of the letter to the New York Times.

The House of Representatives’s ethics committee ruled several months later that Torricelli acted “contrary” to a House rule when he disclosed the classified information. But the panel said it would not punish Torricelli because of “ambiguity” in the rule.

Eventually, the House passed a rule creating a secrecy oath that must be signed by any member or staffer trying to gain access to classified information. Under the new rules, revealing information the way Torricelli did is forbidden.

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a report concluding that “none of the allegations” originally raised by Torricelli were true. Committee Democrats, however, said in a minority rebuttal that “this categorical assertion is not supported by the evidence.”

However, the Democrats did not dispute the part of the report that ripped Torricelli for publicly revealing the information. While there’s still debate as to whether publicizing the CIA employment of Joe Wilson’s wife will damage U.S. intelligence gathering, the impact of Torricelli’s leak was clear, according to the Intelligence Committee review:

“The CIA has given the Committee evidence that the disclosures concerning Guatemala have resulted in the loss of some contacts around the world, who feared their relationship with the United States would be disclosed as well,” the report said.

The State Department aide who gave the information to Torricelli, Richard Nuccio, was stripped of his security clearance by then-CIA Director John Deutch.

The intelligence report also offered a mild rebuke of Nuccio. The report noted that a separate investigation by the State Department Inspector General found that besides passing the information to Torricelli, Nuccio “may have also provided classified information to members of the press, and had prepared classified documents on his home computer that he then telecopied over unsecure telephone lines.”

What were the consequences to Nuccio? Well, the leak controversy and the loss of his security clearance ended his career in the executive branch, and he resigned from the State Department. But it turned out he made the right friends on Capitol Hill. From March 1997 until January 1998 he was senior foreign-policy adviser to Torricelli. During 1998 and 1999, Dr. Nuccio was an adviser to Fernando Zumbado, director of the United Nations Development Program’s Latin American and Caribbean bureau; served as a consultant to the RAND Corporation, and to the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO). In April 2000, he was named founding director of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University.

Recalling the messy Torricelli-Nuccio-Alpirez affair, security-minded Americans can at least take solace that then-CIA director John Deutch was on the ball when it comes to protecting classified information, right?

Wrong again! George Tenet, Deutch’s successor as CIA director, announced in August 1999 that he had stripped Deutch of his CIA security clearance as a penalty for keeping classified documents on ordinary home computers that were not protected by locks, encryption or other security devices.

In fact, until February 2000, Deutch still had a Pentagon security clearance that allowed him to work as a paid consultant on classified Defense Department contracts with Raytheon Corp., SAIC Corp. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Thankfully, the taxpayers have Congress to investigate these leaks, because in the post-9/11 era, the legislative branch has a preeminent duty to oversee intelligence agencies and make sure sensitive information doesn’t get leaked… when they’re not leaking that information themselves.

The day of the 9/11 attacks, Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, told the Associated Press that intelligence agencies “have an intercept of some information that includes people associated with [Osama] bin Laden who acknowledged a couple of targets were hit.”

He made similar comments to ABC News and said the information had come from officials at the CIA and FBI. White House officials were more than mildly displeased with the Hatch at the time.

“Well, that helps a lot! [Expletive]!” one administration official told the Chicago Tribune.

In November 2001, President Bush accused unnamed lawmakers of leaking secrets last week to the news media. For one day, he ordered that briefings involving sensitive information to be limited to only eight top members of Congress, before changing his mind the following day.

Bush’s outrage was stirred by a Washington Post report on a classified briefing. In that story, intelligence officials reportedly told lawmakers there was a “100 percent likelihood of further terrorist strikes.” According to some senators, there was much more sensitive information leaked to the Post that they decided not to run.

Then, in summer 2002, the leaders of the Senate and House intelligence panels called in the FBI to investigate after Vice President Dick Cheney complained to them about another leak.

National Security Agency director, Lt. General Michael Hayden, testified to a joint House-Senate panel about highly classified radio intercepts of two messages that hinted at impending action by al Qaeda terrorists shortly before Sept. 11. The messages, originally in Arabic, were not translated until after the attacks occurred. One day after Hayden’s appearance before the joint panel, CNN aired a report on his testimony.

The FBI investigation did not result in any arrests.

And in what has to rank as one of the most damaging leaks of all time, press leaks tipped off Osama bin Laden to the NSA’s interceptions of his satellite phone conversations. He then switched to more sophisticated phone systems, according to intelligence officials.

So what’s the impact of all these leaks? Isn’t it just an inside-Washington game of puffery and ego stroking? Will a reference on page A17 of the Post make a difference in the war on terror?

Yes, it will, according to the CIA. On June 14 of last year, the agency circulated a memo to top government officials warning them against leaks that it says have “jeopardized” U.S. intelligence capabilities.

“Information obtained from captured detainees has revealed that al Qaeda operatives are extremely security-conscious and have altered their practices in response to what they have learned from the press about our capabilities,” the memo stated. “A growing body of reporting indicates that al Qaeda planners have learned much about our counter-terrorist intelligence capabilities from U.S. and foreign media.”

The memo also stated that every public disclosure of classified information erodes trust in U.S. intelligence and “reduce the willingness of potential allies, volunteers and sources in foreign countries to work with us out of fear of having their cooperation publicized in the press.”

Today, taxpayers must be reassured to see members of Congress and the media acting so vigilantly about this most recent leak. As the central figure of the controversy, Joe Wilson put it, “At the end of the day, it’s of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.”

Oddly, previous leakers of classified information like Torricelli, Nuccio, Deutch, and Hatch have not been seen “frog-marching in handcuffs.”

Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service, is a regular contributor to NRO.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”


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