The Tipping Point in the War on Leaks

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The United States government has faced criticism for its aggressive war against classified information leaks from within its normally well-secured walls. But there was a tipping point, just after Obama took office, when the administration decided something must be done about leaks. 

The New York Times' Sharon LaFranierre did a thorough report on the origins of the administration's crackdown on national security leakers. The answer lies somewhere in a combination of new faces running national security and a series of embarrassing leaks that happened immediately after the Obama administration was installed. It was a perfect storm that led to this war on leaks we've heard so much about.

Under Obama's former director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, the war against leaks started just after the new President took office. It became very clear, very early that they had a leaking problem on their hands

According to Mr. Blair, the effort got under way after Fox News reported in June 2009 that American intelligence had gleaned word from within North Korea of plans for an imminent nuclear test — a disclosure that eventually led to the indictment of Mr. Kim. The report infuriated the Central Intelligence Agency not only because it indicated that the United States was privy to the private discussions of North Korean leaders, but also because it was broadcast mere hours after a classified report with that information had been distributed to intelligence officials.

The immediate leaking of such important intel combined with the new faces running national security pushed an aggressive assault on leaks to the forefront. The way the government was looking at leaks had already started to change. During Blair's first few months in office, he ordered a review of the cases brought against government officials for leaking national security threats during George Bush's second term. There were 153 cases and no indictments. Some cases had suspects that were never charged. A fraction of the cases were turned into FBI investigations.  "He was dismayed by what he found," the Times reports.

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And that's when things started to change within the administration. "A tipping point was reached in 2009," one source told the Times. Blair, FBI director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Eric Holder were being scolded in private meetings with Senate leaders, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, for the continued torrent of leaks. "We had to do 50 push-ups and promise to do better," Blair told LaFranierre. Blair's response was to put his right-hand man, Robert M. Bryant, his counterintelligence executive, in charge of stopping leaks. They also trimmed the investigation review period from a few months down to three weeks. Whether or not their efforts are producing results, beyond twice as many prosecutions as all previous administrations combined, is up for some debate. 

On Friday, Times reporter James Risen was ordered to testify against one of his alleged sources. The government believes CIA official Jeffrey Sterling was the person who leaked classified information about a U.S. plan to pass bad information to Iran. The information, which was classified, ended up in a report and subsequent book written by Risen.

The Department of Justice is also investigating Marine General James Cartwright for allegedly leaking information about the Stuxnet virus to The New York Times' David Sanger. You also may have heard about the cases against Wikileaks source Bradley Manning and the former National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden, who leaked classified documents to the Guardian and Washington Post. A few weeks ago, NSA head Keith Alexander told ABC's This Week that "clearly the system did not work."

The administration is leading an unprecedented war on leaks, to varying degrees of success

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.