'I've Had It Up to My Keister': A Brief History of National Security Leaks

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Every administration leaks classified national security information, and every president tries to stop it. Here are a few.

Obama-briefing-room june11 p.jpg

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the press in the White House press briefing room. (Reuters)

In Friday's White House press briefing, President Obama responded to claims that his administration permitted the unauthorized leaking of classified information, particularly regarding U.S. targeted killing policy and efforts to sabotage Iran's uranium enrichment centrifuges through cyber attacks. Obama declared:

The notion that my White House would purposefully release classified national security information is offensive. It's wrong...We're dealing with issues that can touch on the safety and the security of the American people, our families, or our military personnel or our allies. We don't play with that, and it is a source of consistent frustration, not just for my administration, but for previous administrations when this stuff happens.

He is correct that every administration leaks classified national security information, which will either be confirmed or denied by anonymous senior officials. The round-the-clock news cycle and proliferation of social media platforms have certainly led to louder, rapid-fire political discourse of charges and counter-charges in response to such leaks. As a brief tour of leaks over the past six decades demonstrates, this is nothing new.

John F. Kennedy, December 12, 1962:

Q: You don't know, then, who leaked it?

PRESIDENT KENNEDY: NO, I don't know who, and I think it's unfortunate if anybody discusses any matter that comes before the National Security Council because I think it lessens its effectiveness. But I have satisfied myself that the remark did not come from a member of the National Security Council.

Dwight Eisenhower, February 11, 1960:

"These struggles that you talk about among the people in the Defense Department are those things that are brought about when they are required, apparently, and then leaks occur, as to their personal attitude toward the particular weapon or the particular weapons system, and then that becomes a matter of argument. This I deplore, particularly the methods of publicizing it and making it look like any one of these particular points is the real problem to solve in America's defense."

Lyndon Baines Johnson, April 27, 1964:

"I see them leak to the columnists, these cocktail columnists run around to each one of these Cabinet departments, 'What do you know that you can whisper to me?'"

To his assistant Ralph Dugan:

The State Department "leaks everything they got. 'I've got about as much confidence in them as I have in a Soviet spy."

Richard Nixon, "Statement About the Watergate Investigation," May 22, 1973:

Long before the Watergate break-in, three important national security operations took place, which have subsequently become entangled in the Watergate case.

  • The first operation, begun in 1969, was a program of wiretaps. All were legal, under the authorities then existing. They were undertaken to find and stop serious national security leaks.
  • The second operation was a reassessment, which I ordered in 1970, of the adequacy of internal security measures. This resulted in a plan and a directive to strengthen our intelligence operations. They were protested by Mr. Hoover, and as a result of his protest, they were not put into effect.
  • The third operation was the establishment, in 1971, of a Special Investigations Unit in the White House. Its primary mission was to plug leaks of vital security information. I also directed this group to prepare an accurate history of certain crucial national security matters which occurred under prior administrations, on which the Government's records were incomplete.

Here is the background of these three security operations initiated in my Administration.

By mid-1969, my Administration had begun a number of highly sensitive foreign policy initiatives. They were aimed at ending the war in Vietnam, achieving a settlement in the Middle East, limiting nuclear arms, and establishing new relationships among the great powers. These involved highly secret diplomacy. They were closely interrelated. Leaks of secret information about any one could endanger all.

Exactly that happened. News accounts appeared in 1969, which were obviously based on leaks-some of them extensive and detailed-by people having access to the most highly classified security materials. There was no way to carry forward these diplomatic initiatives unless further leaks could be prevented. This required finding the source of the leaks.

In order to do this, a special program of wiretaps was instituted in mid-1969 and terminated in February 1971. Fewer than 20 taps, of varying duration, were involved. They produced important leads that made it possible to tighten the security of highly sensitive materials. I authorized this entire program. Each individual tap was undertaken in accordance with procedures legal at the time and in accord with long-standing precedent.

The persons who were subject to these wiretaps were determined through coordination among the Director of the FBI, my Assistant for National Security Affairs, and the Attorney General. Those wiretapped were selected on the basis of access to the information leaked, material in security files, and evidence that developed as the inquiry proceeded. Information thus obtained was made available to senior officials responsible for national security matters in order to curtail further leaks.

Gerald Ford, February 13, 1976:

Q: Mr. President, my name is Van Poole, from Ft. Lauderdale. We want to thank you tonight for taking the time out to come down and visit with us. And as a concluding question, I would like to know what can be done about the reports that are being leaked, for instance, the CIA reports?

PRESIDENT FORD: I think it is completely wrong, what has happened with some people trying to destroy the CIA and our intelligence community. The intelligence community is vitally important in wartime, but it is equally important in peacetime. It is the best insurance policy we have that we won't get caught napping. So, we have to keep it strong, and I will resist to the utmost any dismantling of it, believe me.

Now, the leaks that have come out of highly classified information-secret, top secret information-is unconscionable. If I had a quick way I could find out who does the leaking, I would do whatever I could the next day. But they are skillful. Leakers have a devastating impact on good government.

Jimmy Carter, November 11, 1977:

That's one of the most difficult things I've had to face in Washington, how to deal with breaches of secrecy. It's obvious that the American people need to know what's going on, but I'm not in a position, as President, to go to the American people and reveal our negotiating positions when I and President Brezhnev, our negotiators and the Soviet negotiators, have agreed to keep the negotiating points confidential until some agreement is reached. I think the revelation of the details of our negotiating position has been ill-advised in some instances. I don't know where the blame lies.

Ronald Reagan, December 17, 1981:

Q: Jimmy Carter said that when he was in office he also was the subject of perceived death threats from Libya, but he thought it was unwise to discuss it publicly. Can you tell us your reasoning behind making the charge public? And secondly, sir, can you comment on the concern of some people that your dialog with Colonel Qadhafi has resulted largely in enhancing his stature in the world?

PRESIDENT REAGAN: Well, I haven't had any dialog with Mr. Qadhafi, and we did not make it public. The news, claiming leaks from unidentified sources, made it public at a time when we had held this entire matter confidential and secret for a long time, because we believed that we had a better opportunity of apprehending any terrorists or terrorist squads if it were not made public. And so we're sorry that it was. And for anyone to suggest, as has been suggested lately, that we had some reason for making this public, we don't put that shoe on. And, as a matter of fact, we made an effort at one point to call in some leaders in the media and ask for their cooperation in restraint in talk on this, and that then became the story on the news for that evening.

Ronald Reagan, January 10, 1983:

"I've had it up to my keister with these leaks."

George H.W. Bush, June 7, 1992:

"I find it extraordinarily difficult to find leakers. It is extraordinarily difficult. I'd like to find the leaker, and I'd like to see the leaker filed -- fired. Filed would be all right. No, but the reason is it's very difficult to conduct government if somebody in his or her infinite wisdom can shape the decision by leaking documents. The debate and the discussion that should take place doesn't."

(3PA: Despite eight years of media scrutiny and reported leaks, Clinton's presidential papers reveal no statements explicitly condemning the practice.)

George W. Bush, September 30, 2003:

Let me just say something about leaks in Washington. There are too many leaks of classified information in Washington. There's leaks at the executive branch; there's leaks in the legislative branch. There's just too many leaks. And if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated law, the person will be taken care of.

Barack Obama, November 18, 2009:

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  We have these deliberations in the Situation Room for a reason, because we are making decisions that are life and death, that affect how our troops are going to be able to operate in a theater of war.  For people to be releasing information during the course of deliberations where we haven't made final decisions yet, I think, is not appropriate, and -

MR. REID:  Is it a firing offense?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Absolutely.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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