Popular culture often celebrates leaking as the heroic choice. The intelligence community and the cleared workforce need to craft another narrative.
The new film The Post, Stephen Spielberg’s docudrama of the Washington Post’s 1971 decision to publish leaked details of the Pentagon Papers, has enjoyed commercial and critical success. In the film, publisher Kay Graham and executive editor Ben Bradlee defy government pressure and decide to publish stories about a top-secret Defense Department assessment of the Vietnam War, which first was leaked to the New York Times by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg.
In the half century since the events depicted in that film, the American public has grown increasingly accustomed to the revelation of national security secrets. Leaks seem commonplace and leakers lauded as heroes exposing government abuses. Last summer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions decried what he called a “culture of leaking.” But unauthorized disclosures of classified information have significant repercussions. Leaks endanger foreigners who provide information to the United States and dissuade others from providing such assistance. Exposing intelligence collection capabilities, developed at significant taxpayer cost, diminishes the government’s ability to anticipate and neutralize threats.
We marginalize these consequences when we celebrate leakers or associate leaking with heroic action. The national security community must begin the conversation about how to combat this notion – or risk emboldening the leakers yet to come.
Leaks don’t happen every day, it just seems that way. The public consumes 24-hour news that thrives on gossip, political intrigue, and, on occasion, highly-classified national security information. Edward Snowden, former U.S. Army Priv. Chelsea Manning, and others have demonstrated how easily massive amounts of classified material can be exfiltrated in the digital age. One could be excused for believing that leaking classified information is not that bad, given how frequently it seems to occur.
Social deference to high-profile leakers is its own endorsement. Ellsburg, a celebrated activist and author, has applauded Manning and Snowden as fellow whistleblowers who acted to uncover government abuses. Snowden himself has been the subject of an A-list cast biopic and an Oscar-winning documentary. Manning, who served seven years in a military prison for providing 750,000 pages of diplomatic and military intelligence communiques to WikiLeaks, was offered a visiting fellowship at Harvard University. She has even filed to run for election this year to the U.S. Senate.
Harvard’s invitation to Manning, though later rescinded, underscores the dichotomy between the views about leaks of the national security community and broader society. The New York Times noted that Manning’s conviction was mentioned “almost parenthetically” at the end of Harvard’s initial announcement. The possibility that Manning imperiled the lives of foreign sources, strained U.S. diplomatic relations, or exposed U.S. military tactics to foreign adversaries seem to be ancillary concerns to many. (A Defense Department report stated that while the greatest potential harms were unrealized, “cooperative Afghans, Iraqis, and other foreign interlocutors" would likely bear the biggest impact of the leak.) A higher regard for the consequences would go a long way toward reinforcing the seriousness of leaking in the public consciousness.
The normalization of leaks also may be contributing to further leaking. Consider former National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner. The 26-year-old former Air Force linguist sent the press a top-secret report about Russian activities to influence the 2016 presidential election. Winner faces 10 years in prison on federal charges.
“I just figured that whatever we were using had already been compromised, and that this report was just going to be like one drop in the bucket,” Winner told FBI investigators. Even the leakers are beginning to think it’s not a big deal anymore.
In an environment where leaking seems inevitable, government agencies and contractors must begin addressing its influence on the trusted workforce. All cleared personnel receive regular briefings on how to protect classified information, but the training is so focused on rules and procedures that it does little to motivate employees to follow the rules or explain the consequences of unauthorized disclosures. Training should help clearance holders appreciate why information is classified and reinforce the personal responsibility each bears to protect it. Such efforts may save the next Reality Winner before he or she acts.
Additionally, government and industry must strengthen whistleblowing protocols. Cleared employees must be familiar with how and when to contact an inspector general, ethics officer, or members of an appropriate congressional oversight committee. When a clearance holder brings forward legitimate concerns, whistleblower hotlines and inspectors general must launch a credible investigation and produce demonstrable results, with transparency into the process and remediation as appropriate. The more options clearance holders are aware of and trust, the more leaking should lose its appeal—in practice, if not on the big screen.
And that is the power of films like The Post, Snowden, and others: disclosing classified information is always the protagonists’ courageous choice. With Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and the First Amendment on one side – would you want to be on the other? National security considerations carry great weight, but seem insufficient for a Hollywood ending.
The Pentagon Papers marked the beginning of American public’s skepticism of government and the value of national security secrets. The preservation of a free press as a check on government power is an American triumph worthy of retelling, but leaks should not become a fait accompli in the process.
The intelligence community and the cleared workforce must take steps to combat this notion—and remind us that heroes can keep secrets, too.
Charles E. Allen is chair of the Security Policy Reform Council at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, and a principal at The Chertoff Group. He is a former undersecretary for intelligence & analysis at the Department of Homeland Security and served in the CIA for more than four decades.