Leaks keep the ship of state afloat

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The recent revelation that for the past four years the CIA has operated a
“covert prison system” in Eastern Europe for the interrogation of terrorism
suspects has prompted angry demands for investigations — not of the
interrogation prisons but of the leak of classified information that brought the
system to light.

Shortly after Dana Priest’s article appeared on the front page of The
Washington Post,
the CIA sent a letter to the Justice Department requesting an
investigation into the leak that made the “black sites” story possible. A few
days later, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert
fired off a letter to the chairs of their respective intelligence committees,
demanding they launch an immediate probe into the source of the leak.

They may not have far to look. On Nov. 8, CNN reported that former Senate
Majority Leader Trent Lott pegged the possible source of the information as
someone privy to a closed-door briefing for Republican senators by Vice
President Cheney.

That would not surprise veteran journalists on the nation’s capital beat.
They will tell you that leaks of sensitive information regularly spurt from the
offices of high officials and their staffs in both the executive and legislative
branches of the federal government.

As investigative journalist and government-secrecy expert Scott Armstrong has
described it, “the ship of state leaks from the top.”

Little noticed in the uproar over the secret-prisons leak was news that the
government had ended its investigation into a leak four years ago about two
classified messages intercepted by the National Security Agency on the eve of
the 9/11 terror attacks. The target of inquiries by both the Justice Department
and the Senate Ethics Committee: Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a member of the
intelligence committee at the time.

Then there is the long-running saga of Valerie Plame, the CIA operative
exposed by sources in the White House. Lawyers for I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the
vice president’s former chief of staff indicted for obstructing the
investigation into that leak, are exploring some ominous options. They may want
to compel reporters other than the three immediately involved to testify — without any of the limits agreed to by the special prosecutor in the grand jury

What began as a leak has turned into a flood of alarming and unanticipated
consequences for the public, the press, the courts and the federal

Is this any way to run a railroad, let alone the ship of state?

Why do government insiders leak sensitive information? Why do journalists
grant confidentiality to such sources and then suffer painfully, including going
to jail, to protect those sources?

The answer is no big secret — or rather, it’s too many secrets.
Over-classification of material, ever-more restrictions on unclassified
information and increasingly sophisticated news-management techniques combine to
allow top officials unacceptable control over information that goes out to the

This culture of secrecy in the federal government expands every day.

For example, legislation moving quickly though the U.S. Senate right now
would create a new agency called the Biomedical Advanced Research and
Development Agency to encourage private industry to develop countermeasures to
bio-terrorism attacks or disease outbreaks.

Despite giving the agency sweeping powers and lots of money, a recipe for
abuse that begs for oversight, the bill would exempt the entire agency from
federal open-records and open-meetings laws. No other agency or department in
the government has such an exemption, including the departments of Homeland
Security and Defense and the CIA.

Over at the Environmental Protection Agency, officials are proposing dramatic
changes in the frequency and scope of the Toxic Release Inventory, which has
been indispensable in reducing the deadly poisons released into air, water and
land. If the rules are implemented, more than 4,000 plants and facilities would
no longer have to report toxic-release details and more than 2,000 communities
would be denied specific information on half of the chemicals threatening their

There is a constant clamping of such restrictions on the public’s need to

Without an elaborate system for circumventing secrecy and information
management and manipulation, there would be no way or no one to hold accountable
those entrusted with our government.

Without unofficial sources of information, there would be no context for the
“official message.”

Without government insiders who leak information to the press, which passes
it on to the public, government officials’ control over information flow would
be near-absolute. That would threaten severe damage to the machinery of
government and the promise of democracy.

Certainly, a “leak system” is ponderous, frustrating, costly and
counterintuitive for a nation that values its democratic traditions. But it is
absolutely essential as long as our leaders keep secrets that don’t need to be
kept, and as long as they can’t resist putting themselves in the best light by
keeping the rest of us in the dark.

Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment Center,
1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: pmcmasters@fac.org.

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