This Isn’t Watergate, And Intel Leakers Aren’t Deep Throat. They’re Traitors

This Isn’t Watergate, And Intel Leakers Aren’t Deep Throat. They’re Traitors

Something has changed in how we perceive mishandling classified information, because the punishments are going from light to nonexistent to outright praise.
Matthew Braun
By

Remember when classified information used to be protected by professionals who took safeguarding that information seriously? Those were the days. I am not sure how we got to the point where stating that plain, massively important truth makes me feel like an old man yearning nostalgically for yesteryear. I might as well write about how men used to wear suits when they travelled, how deals were made with handshakes and honor, and how boys and girls used to have different bathrooms.

Late last week, the British government made serious complaints that information about the Manchester terrorist attack shared with the United States was promptly leaked to the media. They claimed they have stopped sharing information with the United States about the case to protect the integrity of the investigation.

This is fresh on the heels of the Washington Post’s story that President Trump revealed “highly classified” information about ISIS plots to Russia. (Funny, the sources of the story are, by nature, also leaking. It’s a vicious cycle.)

The Rules and the Law

It wasn’t that long ago I joined the U.S. Army’s Intelligence Corps. (Okay, it was more than 16 years ago, but the years have flown by.) I signed paperwork and was told, in no uncertain terms, that if I leaked, stole, or even handled sensitive information incorrectly, the best thing that would happen is I would lose my job. The worst was that I would go to jail for a long time. Real, live military prison. “Ten years,” they told me, “for each offense.”

So it is with some gobsmacking bewilderment that I have lived through the last 16 years. I have worked on a few counterintelligence (CI) investigations, and they really are a data management exercise. Is the data classified? Was it released? Were the proper procedures followed before the release? If the answers are “Yes, yes, no,” then you have a crime. See? Easy.

Note at no point is there a question “Did the suspect intend to release the information to the public?” or “Is the person a raving Communist or ISIS fanatic?” Intent is not relevant.

If intent is not relevant, then something has changed in how we perceive the improper handling and deliberate leaking of classified information, because the leaking and spying has continued, but the punishments are going from light, to nonexistent, to outright praise.

The Leaker as Hero

Let me clarify a few terms here, since I know the differences often get confusing. When I refer to a person who released classified information to the media, I will call him a “leaker.” When I refer to a person who releases information to a foreign country, I will call him a “spy.” When I refer to a person who releases information to a Russian intelligence operation masquerading as media, I will also call him a “chump.” When I refer to a person who handles information in an extremely irresponsible way in a systemic plan to hide from federal sunshine rules, I will refer to her as “Hillary Clinton.”

The advent of the modern leaker-as-hero started way back in 2010 with Bradley Manning, and went even further in 2013 with Ed Snowden. These two people felt strongly about how the U.S. government was wrong, or something, and decided to tell someone who would be unable to do anything constructive with classified information all about the secret stuff they had seen. These people, both motivated by ideology, are chumps. They were manipulated by foreign intelligence services to steal and release classified information. These are facts, not a political or partisan spin.

This isn’t new. Plenty of ideologically motived people have stolen and compromised classified information. They used to not have WikiLeaks as a surrogate, so these people were just plain, old, regular spies. Ana Montes loved Cuba and communism, but mostly Cuba. She actively provided Cuban intelligence with classified information for years while working for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Jonathan Pollard loved Israel, so he spied for them.

Not all motivation is as easy to understand. Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames loved being weird jerks, so they spied too. What all these people had in common was they spied, got caught, and went to jail for a long, long time.

So, What Changed?

Manning has been released after only seven years, apparently because of popularity with the media, or sympathy for gender dysphoria, although I have never understood the leap between gender dysphoria and “It’s okay to betray your country.” Snowden continues to be a hero, of sorts, although now that nearly everyone remembers that Russian intelligence is not friendly to American interests, he’s not so attractive anymore.

Sorry, Ed. When we said everyone gets to be famous for 15 minutes, we didn’t mention that after you’re alone in Russia, they’ll probably kill you when you get to be a problem.

John Kiriakou leaked classified information to the media, but everyone seemed to like that, since he was leaking stuff about waterboarding. He was sentenced to only 30 months in jail. I am left with the impression that you can leak classified information if it’s popular or fashionable to do so.

No, this isn’t Watergate. No, you’re not Deepthroat. Here’s how I know: We didn’t know who Deepthroat was until he died. Think about that: He kept the secret of how he helped two reporters bring down a president until he died.

‘Whistleblowers’ and the Media

Those who defend Manning, Snowden, and Kiriakou say they did a public service by letting America know what their government was doing. The media fuels this by reporting everything they leaked, and lauding the “courage” it takes to break your promises.

Here’s what the media forgets: Information isn’t classified because it need to be hidden from Americans. It’s classified because it needs to be hidden from our enemies and rivals. (I say “rivals,” because I don’t consider every country to harbor a burning hatred for the United States, but they will steal our ideas because it’s way cheaper than having their own ideas.)

Here’s more bad news for the media: There is a ton of oversight in the government, and it’s the kind of oversight you can trust, but it’s still a secret. There are lawyers, judges, lifelong government servants, and a team of bipartisan elected officials at the very top, which includes the president. So anyone who says “I leaked because I was concerned” is lying.

Staffers and Navy SEALs

The only thing congressional staffers have in common with Navy SEALs is their love for telling stories that make them look good, earn them some money, and encourage sexual intercourse. The leakiness of Congress to the media is at times an actual political ax to grind, or just people with access showing off.

The leaks are designed to be politically damaging to an elected official who doesn’t represent the leaker’s political views.

Recently, though, we have seen a lot of leaks about Russia, and investigations, and the president, and on and on. No one who knows anything about these types of cases will ever tell you, “What I needed during my classified investigation into the business partners of the president and some of his senior advisors was a lot of media speculation.” So that means the leaks are designed to be politically damaging to an elected official who doesn’t represent the leaker’s political views.

Within the Department of Defense, Navy SEALs have a (possibly unfair) reputation for trying to cash in on the SEAL brand once they are out of the service. Book deals, media deals, and gigs as talking heads on TV seem to concentrate and gravitate toward the SEAL community in a way that Marine Raiders, Air Force Pararescuemen, and Green Berets don’t experience. Other than internally and quietly (Hey, remember when you were Quiet Professionals? Good times!), there isn’t much criticism for this anymore. Some, but not much.

The latest one is Robert O’Neill. He’s going to thrill you all with details about everything he ever did. He’s been under investigation then not under investigation on and off for a few years. He’s in good company. Chris Kyle’s first book got made into a movie by Dirty Harry. Seriously, you don’t get more positive reinforcement than that. Matt Bissonnette got burned for leaking classified information, but all he had to do was give back about $7 million he made from running his mouth.

Low-Rent Traitors

Winston Churchill once allegedly said that during war, the truth must be protected by a bodyguard of lies. If you know more about warfare than he did, feel free to explain how he’s wrong.

I am not sure at what point in our culture we decided that national security issues should be a political football, but that belief has infected even those within our national security community with a sense that they alone can determine what really needs to be a secret. It is disgraceful, and it weakens our country. What’s worse is that we no longer need a foreign or radical ideology to turn some into traitors. Routine partisan politics and a couple of bucks will do.

Matthew Braun is an intelligence analyst and consultant, and the owner of Panoply Consulting. You can follow him on Twitter @frieherrbraun. He lives with his wife and hilarious son in Alexandria, Virginia.

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