May 29, 2014– Back when the Vietnam War was just over, and America had beat a desperate and ignominious retreat from Saigon, the CIA wanted to dissuade its disillusioned officers from commenting publicly about the disaster. Higher-ups learned that the agency’s chief analyst at the Saigon station–a fellow by the name of Frank Snepp–was intent on telling the story. The CIA’s chief at the time, Bill Colby, met with Snepp, trying to head him off at the pass. Colby told Snepp not to do it (tell the story), that the ship of state leaks only from the top (read the story of what lengths the agency went to against Snepp in my book The Family Jewels). Snepp went ahead, the U.S. government sued him and won, and sat back fat and happy that it had completed a fortress of secrecy that would prevent future whistleblowers.
The security services went back to their bad old ways, which of course brought us the Edward Snowden leaks. The present-day leadership of the U.S. intelligence community, in the person of Fearful Leader James Clapper, reacted by telling Congress that our own intelligence officers are a national security threat and by issuing a fresh directive prohibiting employees from all but preapproved contacts with the media.
At the time I commented in this space (“America’s Spooks Terrified,” April 25, 2014) that General Clapper stood on dangerous ground with this order since the most common source of leaks is from officials acting in their official capacities.
It took just a few weeks–and here we are. I’m barely back from Berlin, where I was out of touch with the news, when I learn that the name of the CIA station chief in Afghanistan has been leaked. Who’s the culprit? President Barack Obama! Obama visited the Afghan capital and held a meeting with the constellation of senior U.S. officials there. White House press hacks dutifully put out a release listing those in attendance, including the CIA person. The information circulated as an email to six thousand addresses on the White House media list. A reporter acting for the press pool then asked if the White House had meant to include the spook on their list. (Apparently no one among the White House, CIA, or ODNI crew noticed any of this until the press brought it to their attention.) Embarrassed officials rushed out a revised release sans name, and Obama has ordered an investigation of how this happened.
That part’s easy: when everything is secret, nothing is secret. I’ve written this before–as has just about everyone who has seriously examined the world of classified information, but the secrecy freaks out there seem incapable of taking the message aboard. To keep secure those things that really need to be secret you need to restrict the classified information to a small enough list of items that the boffins–just to use a British term–can keep the pile of secrets in mind. When everything is in the pile the boffins can’t keep track and the secrets dribble out.
Bottom line: President Barack Obama was an authorized official (in Fearful Leader Clapper’s meaning of the term) in authorized contact with the media and conveying an authorized administration message, but still a secret escaped. Clapper’s order failed in precisely the way anticipated. No doubt someone’s head will roll for this, but not the true culprits, for they are the secrecy mavens.