“CIA, Mossad killed senior Hezbollah figure in bombing” announced The Washington Post headline on 31 January 2015—nearly seven years after the death of Imad Mughniyeh. Few in America should be particularly heartbroken with the particulars of his demise; after all, Mughniyeh has been the shadowy figure who masterminded attacks in Beirut that killed more than 300 Americans, trained fighters in Iraq to attack US forces, and led the kidnapping, torture, and murder of CIA’s Beirut Station Chief.
The Post article is based on leaks from five former senior officials, and does not explain why these individuals suddenly decided to make the information public. The disclosure could have significant consequences in the Middle East. Israel and Hizballah have traded rocket strikes and threatened war, and while Hizballah already blamed Israel for Mughniyeh’s death, the leak pokes Hizballah in the eye, potentially placing US targets on the terror group’s list again. It also comes at a sensitive time during America’s negotiations to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program.
The Mughniyeh leaks ironically occur during a firestorm regarding David Petraeus, a former four-star general and CIA director, who is currently under investigation by the FBI for sharing classified information with his biographer and mistress. We know the FBI recommended Petraeus be indicted because someone leaked its sensitive discussions to the press.
The leaks over the Mughniyeh case and the Petraeus investigation underscore the US’ continuing inability to prevent unauthorized disclosure of classified information. The problem is so rampant that some websites have helpfully indexed leaks of sensitive programs.
To prevent its employees from sharing sensitive information, the US government typically does two things: it uses threats of prosecution, and it prosecutes those who ignored warnings and leaked information anyway. The Obama administration has been especially vigorous in pursuing leakers, prosecuting nearly twice as many people since 2009 than in the previous 84 years.
There is little available evidence to suggest the increase in prosecutions has actually deterred people from leaking classified information. Consider that the individual(s) who leaked information about the US involvement in Mughniyeh’s death was undeterred by FBI’s investigation of Petraeus. The administration’s legal actions also have raised first amendment concerns and been referred to by some as a war on journalists.
The Obama administration ought to consider reforming its security apparatus from inside in addition to taking legal action against violators. The regulations governing classifications are barely coherent, which is concerning when considering some five million Americans have security clearances and are expected to follow the guidelines. This confusion is highlighted in the Petraeus investigation; he has said he shared nothing inappropriate and apparently backed up his claim by refusing a plea deal.
A second issue is that far too much information is classified. Sometimes it’s unclear whether something should be classified, so an intelligence officer may default to the highest classification level possible to be safe. Some officers don’t take the time to determine the appropriate classification every time they send a three-word response to a long email chain. So much information, improperly classified, makes it more difficult to sift through disclosures that actually harm national security. Furthermore, when everything is classified, it becomes harder to protect the secrets that are really important to national security.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has taken some initial steps to give the media and Americans more access to previously sensitive information by, for example, setting up a Tumblr called IC on The Record. CIA, FBI, and other IC agencies now tweet. The IC’s social media is not exactly thrilling stuff, but it is a first step in providing transparency that may lead to a decline in leaks.
There’s no quick fix to the issue of leaks, and perhaps there shouldn’t be—some journalists have argued that a regular interaction between intelligence professionals and reporters helps protect national security by helping to identify bits that would unwittingly reveal sensitive information.
But the administration will need to try some additional measures to clamp down on leaks, because the sheer daily volume of leaks makes a mockery of the intelligence community’s claims to secrecy, undermines the vast majority of intelligence officers who refrain from blabbing to the press, and damages America’s credibility abroad. Even setting the far-reaching damage done by Edward Snowden’s mass release of information aside, America’s allies have publicly expressed annoyance about America’s inability to protect sensitive information.
America shouldn’t expect to see the end of leaks anytime soon, but it ought to try to curtail them.
Kevin Strouse ran for Congress in 2014 in Pennsylvania’s 8th District after serving as an analyst for the CIA and as an Army Ranger who deployed Iraq and Afghanistan. Kevin lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his wife Amy and two young children, Walter and Charlotte.
Photo: A screenshot from Imad Mughniyeh’s 2008 funeral, from Hizbollah’s Al Manar TV.