Another Perspective

Talking Out of School

A history lesson on intelligence leaking.

By 12.30.13


There was a time when no professional intelligence operations officer would talk about his business with a journalist or anyone else who was not officially involved with these activities. The breakdown came in the 1970s — first with the Nixon Administration and then with Carter. The reasons were different, but the end result was the same. These “unauthorized disclosures” increased as congressional oversight was stimulated by the Pike and Church committees. The instigation of this “talking out of school” was multi-sourced but ultimately evolved from Defense Department competition with the CIA and personal animosity between CIA operational leaders, William Colby and James Angleton (Director and Chief of Counter-Intelligence Staff, respectively). None of this should have happened, but it did.

Jealousy regarding “who knew what” had always existed in Washington political circles. Oddly enough Congress consistently had been kept in the dark in respect to foreign intelligence and only a few veteran politicos were privy to any truly “classified” information. Similarly, only certain “trustworthy” journalists were allowed to know any details of diplomatic and foreign political affairs. Intelligence information (defined as any information derived from intelligence sources) was held tightly by security-cleared individuals on a need-to-know basis. This included most of the White House staff. 

Unusual exceptions were made even earlier in the Kennedy and Johnson years with political backers of these presidents who for personal reasons of the White House insiders were considered trustworthy — and useful. The latter characteristic became increasingly important as a device to influence various members of Congress. It was this special access that created the early journalistic openings outside of the small, traditionally approved, media circle.

William Casey, director of the CIA under President Reagan, opened the door for greater individual journalistic access, but the Vietnam war and its immense press coverage already had broken down the wink-wink, nudge-nudge basis of official leaks that had existed since FDR and Truman and the censorship controls of WW2 and Korea. The fact is that the New York lawyer Casey thought of himself as a master manipulator who could use selected correspondents to his advantage. Even more masterful were writers such as Bob Woodward who manipulated the aging Casey for their purposes. These “special” relationships simply bred counter politically-based selective leaking, and the race had begun.

Some old timers trace the evolution of broader intelligence information access back to the desire of Allen Dulles and the ambition of former OSS personalities to build the CIA into a power capable of competing with the Pentagon. The creation of the modern facility in Langley, Virginia, was not only a monument to past and future U.S. intelligence, but a physical statement of Washington power. As a symbol this was a successful beginning; it also focused the attention of every journalist who had the slightest interest in foreign political affairs. At the same time staff members of the intelligence oversight committees of Congress became the intermediaries for the intelligence community and Washington’s power brokers, including key journalists.

The Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff reacted with their own media outreach as conflicts accumulated over the post-Reagan years. This led to what we now accept as standard Washington operating procedure. The problem is that the line is at best confused over what is classified information guarded by the traditional counter-espionage and counter-intelligence instruments and what the media consider their rightful access under the First Amendment. At the moment the demands of the various components of the U.S. press make protecting information from foreign intelligence services extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The intelligence community and the various Washington administrations have combined to nullify the protections that the American public has a right to expect regarding its national secrets. Freedom of the press never was intended to act to penetrate official secrets, though in recent years the media appear to have assumed the role of arbiter of what is and what is not justifiably precluded from public dissemination. Effectively, this assumption of responsibility for the security of official secrets and the national defense implicitly contained has resulted not from aggrandizement of power by the press. Rather, the governments and the officials therein concerned have acted questionably, at the very least, in action and non-action in securing issues of common defense.

The oversight authority of intelligence gathering and action lies constitutionally with the Executive Branch — and herein there has been consistent failure. For this reason Congressional oversight originally was introduced. This, too, has been inadequate or incompetent. The courts at best have been inconsistent in their guidance. And now the matter of defense of the public’s interests appears to have devolved to the press. Is it not time for a return to a legally bound professional, disciplined, dependable and clear security structure that was so clearly implied as an adjunct in the call for a national army as originally written in the Federalist Papers and strongly defended by Alexander Hamilton.

Or does the U.S. citizenry believe that the self-directed and constitutionally unfettered  “free press’ should be accepted as the ultimate guardian of civil rights and common defense. It is important in this regard to remember that fear of the tyranny of government has a corollary in a fear of unauthorized sharing of governmental information that is important to the common defense of the nation. Constitutionally there is nothing that establishes the press as the “watchdog” of this common defense, even though historical practice has supported the role, at least theoretically.

The answer appears to remain in the continuing search for the balance of truly professional security and responsible press freedom essential to the American experience.  “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.