The allegations against CIA officer Mary McCarthy over leaking sensitive operational intelligence information to the press are deadly serious. Some Democrats, left-wing pundits, the MSM and other assorted Bush-bashers are looking to make this case a cause celebre using political spin, inaccurate analogies and a heavy dose of relativism to justify the accused’s actions. Here’s what you need to know:
1. The release of intelligence after being declassified by an authorized authority (e.g., the Iraq National Intelligence Estimate by the White House) directly to the public–or via the press–is not a “leak,” and is, therefore, legal. The unauthorized release of classified information to the public (e.g., the allegations against Mary McCarthy) is a “leak,” and against the law.
2. If an intelligence official is concerned about conduct they consider to be inappropriate/illegal, measures exist to make competent authority aware of the situation. An agency’s inspector general is a good option. If that avenue fails, an intelligence official can always turn to appropriately cleared congressional oversight committees such as the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence or the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Resigning in protest is also an option; running to the press isn’t.
3. The fact that McCarthy is accused of leaking operational (as opposed to analytical intelligence such as that which was contained in the Iraq NIE) is especially egregious. Most serious: The disclosure of operational information (e.g., intelligence sources and methods) can put American operatives as well as our foreign agents in danger. The bad guys read the press, especially the American press, which–unfortunately–is rife with sensitive information. Moreover, since operational information is so sensitive, its disclosure makes friendly foreign-intelligence partners reluctant to share information with the U.S. That can really hurt with the war on terror and the Iranian nuclear program still on the boil.
4. The accused undoubtedly signed a federal government secrecy oath, saying that she understands that she will be entrusted with highly sensitive information which can cause harm to U.S. national security, and that if she discloses intelligence to individuals not authorized to receive it, she may be prosecuted. The accused is not a hero as some would suggest. She not only broke the law, but she violated the special trust that comes with a security clearance and access to sensitive intelligence.
5. While U.S. government employees are allowed to have political views, they shouldn’t be mixing them with their work. Her politics is an interesting sidebar to the leak story: Clinton National Security Council staff; moved off by the incoming Bush administration; sizeable cash donations to the Democratic National Commitee, and $2,000 contribution to the Kerry campaign in 2004. It’s not clear her actions were politically motivated at this point, but you do the math…
CIA Director Porter Goss is right to hunt down leakers. In some instances, leaks do irreparable damage to U.S. national security in the same way espionage by an American citizen does. It provides sensitive national-security information to an unauthorized audience. Leaking to the press, regrettably, ensures the widest dissemination of our nation’s secrets. We can only hope that this case will deter others from taking such a reckless course with America’s security.
–Peter Brookes is senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He is author of A Devil’s Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States.