By any measure, qualitative or quantitative, the Trump administration has been beset with a deluge of leaks that is unprecedented in American history. Some leaks are to be expected. White House officials leak policy trial balloons (these aren’t technically leaks as they are planned and approved) and they dish on one another for transitory political advantage. Other leaks are generated by political opponents of the administration in order to harm or embarrass the administration and they often damage national security in the process.
Ron Johnson’s Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs has released a report documenting the volume of this latter category of leaks and it is mindboggling:
When the committee staff stripped out leaks that focused on the Russia probe and law enforcement items and looked at leaks with the possibility to injure national security, the numbers are even more stark:
Today, Politico reports that pressure is being ratcheted up on leakers, causing them undue stress:
National security officials across the federal government say they are seeing new restrictions on who can access sensitive information, fueling fears in the intelligence and security community that the Trump administration has stepped up a stealthy operation to smoke out leakers.
Officials at various national security agencies also say they are becoming more concerned that the administration is carefully tracking what they’re doing and who they’re talking to — then plotting to use them as a scapegoat or accuse them of leaks.
One U.S. official voiced concern over even talking to their superiors about a benign call from a reporter. The agency this official works for had started limiting staff’s access to information, they said, and it would make it far easier to figure out who was talking to people in the media.
There was suspicion, the official said, that the agency was even tracking what they printed, to keep tabs on what information they were accessing.
As someone who has worked in a SCIF (thankfully for a short time) and who dealt with highly classified information on a daily basis during parts of my military career, what strikes me about this opening is the extent to which a culture of gossip seems to have permeated many of these agencies. You shouldn’t be taking “benign” calls from reporters if you aren’t a leaker. Press contacts are passed to an agency communications office and they decide who will speak for the agency and what the main talking points will be. You shouldn’t be gossiping with colleagues about classified information you have access to but which they don’t. If you are afraid your boss is going to be monitoring what you are printing, maybe you shouldn’t be printing it.
A half dozen officials across the national security community described to POLITICO a series of subtle and no-so-subtle changes that have led to an increasingly tense and paranoid working environment rooted in the White House’s obsession with leaks.
The correct term here is “leakers,” not officials.
The reverberations have spread in the weeks since, and several national security officials outside the White House have spoken of a strategic thinning of the ranks — limiting the number of people even read into certain sensitive matters, so that if something leaks, the suspects are obvious.
“The circles on this are so small,” one U.S. intelligence official said of the various Russia investigations that have cast a shadow on Trump’s White House.
Information on Trump and Russia has been so limited there would be fewer and fewer sources, the official said, putting those who are talking at risk. “Confirming [Russia news] is almost impossible,” the official said.
In some cases, the official added, information has been so “choked down” that if something comes out in the press, “it’s either a bogus leak” or, the official said, the relevant agency will know exactly where it came from. And, the official said, they had heard several other government organizations had started doing the same.
In other words, the administration is establishing a level of discipline and information security that should have been in existence all along. Need-to-know, not security clearance, is the gold standard of any security program.
“There’s an increasing concern that they may be moving beyond monitoring official communications,” the second U.S. official said. It’s “likely the case,” the official said, that the administration could be tracking the personal communications channels of federal employees — especially those close to the White House — including personal email accounts.
Yes, indeed. If there is suspicion of national security information being leaked, a warrant can be obtained to monitor personal communications. And that does appear to be happening:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has apparently heeded Trump’s guidance, launching multiple investigations and delivering a public scolding during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on June 13 to “persons in our intelligence agencies.”
“I fear that some people may find that they wish they hadn’t leaked,” Sessions ominously warned.
While Sessions spoke vaguely of active investigations, several intelligence officials told POLITICO those probes are being closely guarded.
“There’s been some [crimes reports] sent over and there’s more in the process,” one intelligence official said they had heard, though the official stressed the majority of the information was unconfirmed rumor.
Keep in mind, that these investigations are limited to leaks of national security information, not merely embarrassing stuff:
President Obama also issued Executive Order 13526 in 2009 governing classified national security information. Section 1.4 specifies the categories of information subject to classification because “unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or discernible damage to the national security.”11 The categories include “intelligence activities”; “foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States”; “military plans, weapons systems, or operations”; and “scientific, technological or economic matters relating to the national security.”
Any intelligence or security professional will tell you that the weak link in security is always the human. No matter how great a system appears to be on paper, a careless or deceitful person can breach it because all systems are basically designed with the assumption that employees will follow rules. What the administration is doing here, though, will have a ripple effect far beyond stopping leaks. If you look at the Manning, Snowden, and Winner cases, they were able to access information for which they had no valid need-to-know. In Winner’s case, she was able to print at least one classified document that she had no reason to access and no one was the wiser. China rolling up long running CIA networks has all the marks of someone gossiping to the wrong person.
To the extent that leaking becomes a higher risk activity we are all safer.