Plugging the Leaks

Posted January 7th, 2011 at 7:38 pm (UTC+0)
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There is a famous legend about the little Dutch boy who saves his town from flooding by plugging a leak in a dike with his finger.  Fortunately for him (and the town), there was only one leak because, well, a boy has only so many fingers.  But multiple leaks of information keep on coming out of the U.S. government, and the Obama administration is trying to crack down on them.  But even the U.S. government has a limited number of fingers.

In the most recent case, the Justice Department has just indicted former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling for leaking information to a journalist, believed to be New York Times reporter James Risen, on clandestine American efforts to sabotage the nuclear program of an unnamed country, assumed to be Iran.  The material Sterling is accused of leaking was a central part of Risen’s 2006 book, “State of War: the Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.”

The indictment comes on top of other government efforts to halt leaks.  Last year, a former official of the super-secret National Security Agency was accused of leaking information to the Baltimore Sun, and a State Department contractor was charged with giving secret information to Fox News.  All of this is in addition to the continuing uproar over the disclosures of classified cables and reports by the online website, WikiLeaks.

So why do people leak?

Motives vary.  And it’s up to the journalists who receive the leaks to figure out those motives because it might influence how the information is interpreted. The leaked data may be incomplete, or selectively disclosed out of context, or even altered.  Does the leaker have a grudge?  Sterling is portrayed in his indictment as a disgruntled employee angry over perceived racial discrimination.

Other leakers believe themselves to be true patriots, whistleblowers trying to publicize some government misdeed. Thomas Drake believed he was disclosing evidence of the waste of funds on several intelligence projects at the NSA.  Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 said he leaked the documents out of opposition to the Vietnam war.

Whatever the reason, the government takes a dim view of those who leak.  Even so, prosecutions are comparatively rare. Officials don’t like to discuss secret information in open court proceedings, so many leakers are subjected to internal disciplinary action, usually dismissal.

That’s what makes the Obama administration’s campaign so unusual.   Steven Aftergood, an expert on security classification issues at the Federation of American Scientists, told the Washington Post that the five leaks cases pursued by the Obama administration exceeds the total for all previous administrations. One wonders if the administration will run out of fingers to plug the leaks.

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About this blog

Gary Thomas

Gary Thomas is VOA senior correspondent and news analyst. He has spent more than 30 years covering a wide range of stories on political developments, war, and civil unrest. From 1990 to 1994 he was VOA’s bureau chief in Islamabad, and has made numerous trips back to the region since then. He was also Southeast Asia bureau chief in Bangkok from 1996-2001. He is now based in Washington, providing background and analysis on issues of intelligence, security, and terrorism for VOA’s worldwide audience.

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