No Talking

While politicians took credit for the death of Osama bin Laden, career employees were told to keep quiet.

Intelligence agency employees are getting mixed messages these days. On one hand, President Obama and other senior members of his administration have praised the work of the CIA and others who tracked down and helped kill Osama bin Laden. On the other, employees are being told to stop talking about their successes to journalists, and they've even been threatened with criminal prosecution.

Apparently, a number of intelligence community employees, eager to tell the story of their good work, have let slip some secrets. The Washington Post published two of the most revealing accounts-the presence of a CIA safe house near bin Laden's hide-out in Pakistan, and the use of a stealth drone, which was able to conduct long-term reconnaissance of the site and evade detection by Pakistani's air-defense systems.

In May, outgoing CIA Director Leon Panetta sent an agencywide memo warning employees to keep mum about the operation, noting, "an unprecedented amount of sensitive-in fact, classified-information [is] making its way into the press." He should know, of course. Senior members of the administration were falling over themselves within hours of the raid to regale journalists with detailed accounts of the daring exploit. The White House posted a background briefing by senior administration officials on its website.

It appears that career employees who talked to reporters were merely taking their cues from their politically appointed bosses. For several days, a reporter needed only pick up the phone and ask for an interview about some aspect of the strike, and the request was happily obliged. I personally asked for, and received, details from career officials unaccustomed to talking to the press, details that, if they were unclassified, had been so for only a matter of hours.

In his letter, Panetta admonished his staff that leaks would be turned over to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. To threaten employees at their moment of greatest triumph seems counterproductive, and demonstrably unfair, given that the White House leaked like a sieve. (And some of its accounts of what happened in bin Laden's house turned out not to be accurate.)

It would be tempting to write off Panetta's warning as a friendly, if stern, reminder of employees' obligations to protect classified information. Except that today, the Obama administration has mounted criminal prosecutions against two former intelligence officers, a contract analyst and an Army private in cases related to unauthorized disclosure of information. To put those numbers in perspective, the administration has conducted more prosecutions of leaks than all previous administrations combined. It also has made extensive use of the 1917 Espionage Act, a statute usually reserved for traitors and spies.

It's clear that the administration got ahead of itself in recounting the bin Laden raid. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates told CBS News that on the day of the operation, senior officials had agreed to share little of the information, but the plan essentially fell apart within hours. It would be naïve, bordering on absurd, to presume that an event this momentous wouldn't be widely discussed.

Given the extraordinarily hostile attitude toward leaks today, the administration is sending the wrong message by brandishing the threat of investigations and prison. It doesn't inspire employees to take risks, which was so essential to the effort to kill bin Laden. And on a more basic level, it's just hypocritical. Having reported on intelligence for more than a decade now, I can't remember many times when so many career employees were willing to talk to a journalist. Many of them were following the lead of political officials, who were just as eager to trumpet their victory in public.

Shane Harris is senior writer for Washingtonian magazine and the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.