User's Guide to Intelligence Leaks

Sunday, November 20, 2005
It's been a big couple of weeks for news of leaks of intelligence. There is, of course, the continuing saga of the Valerie Plame Identity. There was the recent succession of leaks of secret CIA air flights, secret CIA prisons, and so on. I usually like to have three examples, but I'll leave it as an exercise for the interested reader to find them; I promise that it would only take a few back issues of the Washington Post or the New York Times to find them.

With that in mind, however, let's think about what can and can't be inferred from these leaks. Remember that, in general, classified information is classified for a reason: we know what we know about Them and how we got it, and we don't want Them to know what we know, especially if that might let Them figure out how we know it. (Technically, "how we got it" is called "sources and methods".) Everyone who works with classified materials knows these things; in fact, one is required to take regular courses and briefings on what classification means, why classification is important, and what unexpected methods might be used to try and get classified information. (I recall in my youth a lot of talk about sloe-eyed Gallic women.) In modern times, the potential importance of classified information is codified in the Espionage Act (18 U.S.C. § 792 et seq.) and the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (50 U.S.C § 421), which establish extremely serious penalties for revealing classified information.

So ... then why are there leaks of this sensitive information? There are many reasons, but as a first approximation, all intelligence leaks should be treated as satisfying three conditions, which shall be henceforth known as Seneca's Law of Leaks:

  1. All leaks come from someone with considerable bureaucratic power, or under the protection of someone with bureaucratic power. (Why? Because without bureaucratic power, the risk is too great.)

  2. The information in the leak is not complete, and may very well not be true. In fact, it is very likely to be nearly or completely untrue, for the simple reason that if it were well-informed and true, it would actually cause substantial harm, and expose the leaker to real risk.

    However, the likelihood that the material will cause real damage is directly proportional to the bureaucratic power of the leaker.

  3. The information is leaked in order to serve the political or bureaucratic purposes of the leaker. It is never leaked with pure and altruistic motives. On the other hand, it is never leaked by someone who obtained the information by active espionage, because the people who commit the espionage don't want it known that they know what they found.

Note that these rules are non-partisan: they apply equally to John Kennedy's revelations about the "ICBM Gap" and the leak by a Republican senator of the fact that NSA was intercepting Usama bin Laden's satphone communications.

An interesting correlary to point 2 is that the information is very likely to be from someone with bureaucratic power, to that person's political advantage, and exactly contradicting the true intelligence, because the risk of revelation is now zero, while the risk of being contradicted is also very small — because attempting to contradict the leak will reveal sources and methods. Any time the person revealing this information is easily identifiable, the likelihood of this is very much increased. (In this context, consider, for example, the "Missle Gap" of the 1960 Presidential campaign. The information Kennedy presented wasn't true, and — since he was a member of the Armed Services Committee, which would see threat assessments — he very likely knew it wasn't true. Nixon, however, could say it wasn't true, but couldn't say how he knew or what the truth was.)


Syl said...

Sounds good. Except sometimes there are bad guys who simply leak for money. And I suspect most of those don't even know the true value of whatever it is they are leaking.

Seneca the Younger said...

I was trying to distinguish these guys from the guys who leak for money, or even for ideological reasons, as Pollard apparently did. Which is to say you're exactly right, just I think of those guys a "spies", rather than "leakers."

Syl said...


Except that I can't separate the leakers from the people they leak to. And there may be some form of 'payment' in the form of access that goes one way and trust that goes the other.