No Talking

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

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.

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