Center for Strategic Communication

Photo: Harry Wood/Flickr

To listen to Washington politicians, leaks of secret national security programs are among the biggest threats to America. Over the past several months, they’ve outdone themselves in declaiming media disclosures about President Obama’s “kill list” for terrorists; cyber-attacks against Iran; and a possible Saudi infiltration of al-Qaida’s Yemeni branch.

“This is getting way out of hand,” Rep. Buck McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters last month.

And it’s not just legislators: The Justice Department has opened two investigations to hunt the leakers, consistent with Obama’s record of prosecuting more officials for leaking than any previous administration. But the politicians don’t want to wait for the prosecutors to finish their inquiries. The leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees propose to make administration officials inform Congress before holding background briefings for reporters; and to consolidate the press shops within the spy agencies. Those moves may be contained in the annual intelligence funding bill that Congress will soon consider

Just one problem: they won’t do a thing to stop leaks. They’ll make it harder for regular reporters to do their jobs. And, not coincidentally, they’ll ignore a big source of the leaks — Congress itself.

Take it from a reporter who occasionally finds himself on the receiving end of a leak. In Washington, leaks both profound and innocuous spout forth from offices both famous (the White House) and obscure (the principal deputy assistant secretary of whatever), regardless of how the officeholder proclaims to be angered and horrified by the leaking. There are, however, ways to sharply limit the leaks. But politicians, appointees, journalists and citizens might not like their implications.

There are many questions to ask about how much damage leaks pose to national security and how that balances with the need for an informed citizenry in a democratic society. For the sake of consistency, I’m going to ask none of them. One person’s leak is another’s enterprising journalism; one person’s damage to national security is another’s policy preference. This is merely an exploration of what is probably necessary to force Washington professionals to shut up. Decide for yourself if it’s worth it.