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...