There is something odd about the way classified or sensitive national security information is treated in our government these days. I’m not talking about something as clear cut as WikiLeaks, or similar cases in which someone has surreptitiously passed classified information to people not authorized to have it. Although this had everyone in a panic for a while, there are ways of dealing with such problems through information technology and tightened control of physical spaces.
I’m actually thinking of a more subtle breach. Let’s call it the “anonymity” virus—that is, the increasing number of people with access to classified data who seem quite willing to share it in the media, provided they are not identified.
This strikes me as somewhat different from traditional journalistic sourcing—or at least the kind I grew up admiring. To be sure, journalists have important jobs in our democracy and can’t do them without sources—and they are entitled to keep sources confidential. But in a lifetime of reading investigative journalism, I don’t recall anything quite like the epidemic of explicit anonymity—and the wide range of justification for it—that I’ve noticed recently.
Spurred by this impression, an associate and I recently reviewed the practice in three major national newspapers. A sampling of what we found has U.S. government officials speaking “on condition of anonymity”: “because they were not authorized to discuss matters that remained classified”; “because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly”; “because they were speaking of sensitive intelligence matters”: “because the attacks in Yemen are rarely acknowledged publicly”; because of “the nominally secret Drone program”; “because reviews on Afghanistan are continuing”; “because he was not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive analyses”, or “to discuss sensitive diplomacy”; because “it involved internal deliberations”; and, finally, “because it involved a sensitive personnel matter.”
Strung together like that, it is almost material for Jon Stewart or Saturday Night Live. Intelligence, diplomacy, weapons systems, internal government reviews, sensitive analyses, secret attacks, personnel matters: Is anything really off limits? What’s behind all of this and what should we make of it?
First, it’s pretty obvious that a large number of people in the government do not take their security clearances and classified information restrictions very seriously. This could mean that a lot of information is overclassified and therefore invites compromise. Or it could be symptomatic of a breakdown in security discipline in the national security community, flowing partly from a conviction that there is no real penalty for sloppiness and some political advantage in the practice. I lean to the latter interpretation.
Second, human sources, whether in my former profession of intelligence or in journalism, all have motives, and it’s important to understand them. In all of the cases above, it strikes me that these people have unstated agendas—in fact, many appear to be leaks “authorized” by some part of government to advance a view, which then frequently inspires some other part of government to “counter-leak” data that bolsters a competing view.
Third, this is not seemly or wise behavior for a mature superpower—especially not one, like the United States, that is heading into a period of contested primacy in a less friendly world. All of these things—intelligence, sensitive internal deliberations, secret weapons—have only one justification: to give the United States decision advantage in a highly competitive world. Why give it away? Transparency has its virtues, but not in poker or chess, the games that most closely mirror international dynamics today.
Finally, I wonder if this really serves the nobler purposes of journalism, which go well beyond the “keeping them honest” motto of a leading cable network. Without solid and objective journalism our democracy cannot be healthy, because that ultimately depends on a well-informed citizenry able to wisely make choices that only the people can make in a representative government.
But how are we to judge what we learn from this chorus of anonymity? It may serve to provoke, entertain, titillate or polarize, but does it increase international confidence in the United States, tell a satisfying journalistic “story”, or leave us with confidence that issues have been deeply explored? Not so much.
Perhaps it is only a symptom of a chaotic and highly partisan moment in the nation’s capital. But surely both sides—national security professionals and journalists—can do better.