'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.

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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.

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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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