NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 27, 2010

The government has battled for nearly a century to restrain the press from publishing leaked secrets. The fight usually heats up in wartime, says journalist Shane Harris. 

But leak investigations are usually unproductive.  Defying the perception of secrecy in the world of spycraft, the number of people who know about even the most highly classified program can be in the hundreds.  It's rare that investigators identify a suspect, and rarer still that they bring an indictment and go to trial, because the accused could end up revealing more classified information in his defense -- a kind of "graymail" that ensures that most leakers will never spend time in prison, says Harris:

  • From 2005 to 2009, federal agencies referred nearly 200 leaks to the FBI.
  • Investigators opened 26 cases, identified 14 suspects, and prosecuted none of them. 

The Obama administration is on the verge of being the first in U.S. history to see two people sentenced for disclosing classified information in a single presidential term: 

  • In May, Shamai Leibowitz, a Silver Spring linguist who had worked for the FBI on contract, was sentenced to 20 months in prison for giving classified information to the host of a blog.
  • And in April, the Justice Department indicted a former National Security Agency official, Thomas Drake, for allegedly leaking classified information to a reporter at the Baltimore Sun. If convicted, Drake could spend decades in prison. 

The military also filed criminal charges in July against Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old Army specialist from Potomac who allegedly leaked government secrets to the Web site WikiLeaks: 

  • Manning is believed to have given the site footage of an Apache-helicopter strike in Iraq from 2007 that killed civilians and two news reporters.
  • The footage caused a sensation when WikiLeaks posted it in April with the title collateral murder.
  • Manning is also suspected of having given the site more than 250,000 secret diplomatic cables, which he may have copied off a government computer system in Iraq. 

Taken together, the Manning investigation, the Leibowitz and Drake cases, and the subpoena of James Risen, a reporter at the New York Times who published a book that divulged the CIA's five-year-long plan to derail Iran's nuclear-weapons program, suggest that the Obama administration may go down in history as the most anti-leak of all, says Harris. 

Source: Shane Harris, "Plugging the Leaks," Washingtonian, August 2010. 

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