July 20, 2010
Washington Post and National Security
A recent flood of articles on national security leave many to believe that America's national security has been compromised by the media. Detailed reports include the Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri's defection, the sabotaging of the Iranian nuclear program, and the Washington Post articles and website titled "Top Secret America." Those intelligence experts I contacted feel that too much information is being released which can be harmful to America's national security. They cite the latest Washington Post series which the editors describe as "the huge national security build up in the United States after the September 11th, 2001 attacks."
Washington Post journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin attempt to make the case that the intelligence agencies or "top secret America" are hidden from public view. They published a nine page list of agencies and contractors as part of the series. Arkins comments about the intelligence world being a "closed community." The Washington Post website states, "Visit the site for an innovative online reading experience, accompanied by a searchable database of government organizations and corporate contractors that do top-secret work; details on what that work entails; and the cities and states where that work is done."
One former high ranking CIA official commented that the Washington Post series of articles is "responsible journalism, looking into whether there is too much reliance on contractors in the intelligence community, taken to irresponsible lengths, publishing a list of contractors, their responsibilities, and the physical locations."
David Gompert, the acting director of National Intelligence makes many notable points in the letter he wrote to the editor of the Washington Post. In it he states that "based on the information provided to us by the Washington Post regarding your website, we have serious national security concerns about making this collection of material available to those who would do us harm...Your website can be used as a targeting and planning tool for acts of terrorism or intelligence operations against the United States and its citizens. It poses a potentially significant risk to the security and safety of those listed companies, government facilities, and individual employees."
To classify information, the government uses different definitions: harmful, seriously harmful, and greatly harmful. This is then organized according to its significance as sensitive, confidential, secret, or top secret. A former operative noted that he had to take an abundance of tests: a map test, a multiple choice test, a psychology test, and a polygraph test and the whole process, from when he applied to when he was hired, took 14 months. It seems doubtful that approximately 850,000 people as reported by the Washington Post go through this process to get a national security clearance.
The Washington Post implies that national security was not hurt since all the information in the articles was from open sources and public records. However, as a former intelligence official who is currently a contractor explained, there is a way to collect sensitive information that is technically unclassified but someone with knowledge can connect the dots to reach a classified conclusion. There are ways to pick up bits and pieces of information so that a clear picture can be determined.
The intelligence officials I spoke with disagreed with the Washington Post's rationale for publishing the material. They felt that any time sources and methods are exposed it is harmful to America's national security. For example, after the Department of Justice released the memos last summer many foreign CIA sources were hesitant to cooperate for fear that their secrets would not be kept. A former operative noted that after the Washington Post implemented its website, those who might consider working with America would now be afraid to do so, "lest their names show up in the press."
The Washington Post website could be viewed as a security risk by providing information and motives to those who want to hurt America. There is always the need to balance the public's right to know with the need to protect sensitive information. A former high ranking CIA official sarcastically commented that "sure, this information may have been derivable from open sources, but why make it easier for the foreign intelligence agencies. The Russians may get more out of this series than they got from Anna Chapman and friends (the 12 Russians arrested.)" As former Director Hayden commented "my instinct is that we are saying too much."