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Beltway Secrecy


In five easy lessons

Is the Clinton email controversy a bona fide political scandal or more of the sort of makeweight distraction that tends to dominate American political reporting when presidential elections roll around? That’s a question that will play out over the coming weeks—and the answer will depend to a great extent on what’s actually in those emails that are being gossiped about but not really reported on in any meaningful way. In the interim, however, it does teach us a great deal about how secrecy is used in contemporary Washington. In fact, it offers us five easy lessons.

Lesson No. 1: Secrets are routinely leaked by politicians for political gain; many of those who regularly complain about leaks are leakers themselves.

The current controversy offers us a whirlwind of leaks within leaks and leaks about leaks. If it leaves any lasting footprint, then it will be as a demonstration of the art of simultaneously leaking and suppressing information to serve purely partisan political goals. It all arises from an investigation by Representative Trey Gowdy’s Benghazi Committee. Early in the process, Gowdy zeroed in on a series of emails that had been published two years earlier by Gawker and the Kremlin’s cable news network, Russia Today. It has now emerged that the emails had been secured through a Romanian hacker working within a Russian espionage operation run by the FSB and targeting prominent Americans who used AOL, long judged to be about the least secure of all major American service providers. Among the targets, in addition to Clinton’s close confidant Sidney Blumenthal, were Colin Powell, Dorothy Bush (George W. Bush’s sister), and a number of senior Pentagon officials. The Blumenthal emails to Clinton contained analyses of developments in Libya by a now-deceased former senior CIA officer, Tyler Drumheller. Gowdy decided to draw on the fruits of this FSB operation for ammunition in his probe, demanding that the emails now be turned over through a formal process. The State Department and the parties complied, asking Gowdy to treat the materials as confidential.


From Scott Horton’s Lords of Secrecy, published in January by Nation Books.

When challenged about the whistleblower prosecutions by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, then-Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said, “You don’t get to break the law and disclose classified information just because you want to.” He added, “Politics should play no role in it whatsoever.” In fact, precisely the opposite is true, and Breuer, the head of the criminal division as whistleblower prosecutions peaked, is fully familiar with that fact. Decisions to prosecute those who disclose classified information are inherently political, and political figures routinely break the law and disclose classified information with no consequences whatsoever.
     The official justifications do not furnish an honest appraisal of the situation. It would be more accurate to say, as noted by a character from the British sitcom Yes, Minister, that Washington is a “ship of state that leaks from the top.” Politics within the Beltway is to a very large extent practiced by the art of leaking. Tens of thousands of such leaks occur in the course of any political cycle, and the leakers often include political personages of both parties and senior figures in agencies of the government. These leaks have a variety of different purposes, many of them well recognized within the established political etiquette of the Washington Beltway.
     Parallel to the culture of leaking, we find a culture of raising accusations about leaks—almost invariably driven by figures who are themselves notorious leakers. This is a sort of Beltway political blood sport in which points are scored both by leaking and by proving that a political rival has leaked. It is worth taking some time to explore different kinds of leaks and the functions served by each.
     An administration figure might be on the verge of an important decision—to nominate a controversial person to a high office, to seek funding for a sensitive but problematic weapons program, to authorize a tactical deployment of military forces in an emerging crisis, or to implement a new policy not yet known to the public but likely to draw fire from important interest groups. One time-honored form of leak involves testing the political waters beforehand to draw out potential adversaries and understand their possible lines of attack and to assess the viability of a contemplated decision in the forum of public opinion. This invariably involves sensitive information for the administration, and it may involve information that is still classified—such as the existence of a weapons program still in development, or the decision to deploy an aircraft carrier group to a location close to a building conflict. This sort of leak serves as a trial balloon to see whether a sufficient political consensus can be formed to support the initiative. It may also be used to reassure an ally that his concerns are appreciated and being acted on, or, conversely, to send a message to an adversary that the administration is taking steps that may lead to a more forceful and more public response.
     Another type of leak has to do with the ego of the leaker. This brings us to the dangerous area of amateur psychology, suitable for discussion in broad terms but rarely an appropriate basis for conclusions in any specific instance without a more comprehensive evaluation. The leaker may be demonstrating self-importance through access to privileged information. Ego gratification is often suggested by prosecutors as the reason for leaks made by low- or midlevel bureaucratic officials. But more frequently, the leaker may be seeking to develop a special rapport or relationship with the leakee—who may be another government official with certain power and influence or a journalist. This may be done through a process of swapping of secrets, and journalists who receive classified information may often be plumbed by their leakers for other pieces of the mosaic of secrecy. While ego gratification may be relevant to the conduct of leakers, a far more compelling case can be made linking it to prosecutors—many of whom are eager to build name recognition with the public and to lay the foundation for a career in politics.
     Leaks may also serve partisan political, factional, or institutional interests—and indeed the leak is perhaps the single most underappreciated tool used in struggles between political factions and government agencies. Excellent examples can be found in the struggle to uncover details surrounding the intelligence failures that paved the way to the tragedy of September 11, 2001—with the CIA regularly scurrying to cover up its missteps, and sources close to the FBI repeatedly stepping forward to disclose them. This interagency game of leaks reflected the two agencies’ sparring over an ascendant role in counterterrorism operations, but it was also essential in enabling the public and Congress to understand the serious mistakes that were in fact made.
     Leaks regularly occur through inadvertence or by mistake. During a visit to wartime Iraq in March 2009, Rep. Peter Hoekstra made tweets concerning the position and activities of the congressional delegation in real time, compromising ongoing operations. When the president made a surprise visit to Kabul in June 2014, the Obama White House issued a guest list for a formal dinner, divulging the identity of the CIA’s station chief. There is nothing in either case to suggest that these disclosures resulted from a conscious decision to make public sensitive or confidential information.
     The most important form of leak involves whistleblowers. By definition, a whistleblower leak occurs when a person with proper access to classified information discloses discrete information based on a conclusion that this disclosure is necessary to reveal incompetence, corruption, or criminality.
     While it is easy to ridicule and dismiss, the culture of leaks serves important functions in the political system. As the American government becomes entangled in secrecy—much of which is illegitimate or at least serves no compelling purpose—there is a healthy need to ensure that political discussion among policy makers and the public is properly informed. The process of declassifying and releasing information is so slow and cumbersome it hardly serves this purpose in a timely way. But sporadic leaks do. Similarly important, leaks frequently occur in the political process to call political actors to account for false or dishonest statements that otherwise would be permitted to stand because of secrecy.
     This culture of leaks, what one notable commentator calls the “leaky Leviathan,” does not reflect a dysfunctional government. Rather, it shows how the political system copes with an excess of secrecy that otherwise would stagnate and stultify.

A significant part of these emails, or detailed descriptions of them, nevertheless found their way into the New York Times and other publications, conveying messages that consistently correspond to those crafted by Gowdy. This shows how routinely confidential materials are leaked to the media for political gain. In this case, Gowdy’s Benghazi investigation has no apparent interest in Benghazi, which has been the subject of eight prior investigations, including one led by Gowdy’s colleague and Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers, which conclusively reviewed the failings in Benghazi but did not produce useful campaign fodder. Gowdy’s operation is all about the Clinton campaign, and in particular a very well-orchestrated effort to drive up Clinton’s negatives in advance of the presidential race by making her appear untrustworthy. Claims that Clinton destroyed emails, failed to produce information, or mischaracterized emails are all extremely useful in this effort. Never mind that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject of Gowdy’s investigation. This tactic plays off the political liability of secrecy for a recent officeholder, who is constrained not to publicly discuss classified materials and hence can easily be made to appear evasive.

Lesson No. 2: Many of the leaked secrets relate to bureaucratic power struggles.

Washington is all about the struggle for power, and the favorite tool in that struggle has always been secrecy. The game is fought by making secrets, leaking secrets, and then accusing others of betraying national security by leaking secrets.

The controversy took on new legs when it was reported that an inspector general reviewing the Clinton emails found that a number of them contained information that should have been classified top secret. This was a jarring disclosure, given statements from the Clinton camp that the emails were routine and contained no information that was classified at the time or should have been. How can these statements be reconciled? Don’t they mean that Clinton was mischaracterizing the situation?

These sorts of reports are extremely useful for the political innuendo since the curtain of secrecy prevents clarification of the controversy. In this case, however, we have some clues. The “top secret” claims appear to relate to passages in which Clinton noted the existence of the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan and several other countries. This is information that is simultaneously widely publicly known and top secret. In this case, top secret does not mean it is a secret that has actually been kept, because it has not been. Indeed, the targets of the drone program know all about it, and so do the people of Pakistan who see the drones unleash their lethal payloads with frightening regularity. About the only people on earth who don’t really know much about the drones are the American public. In this case, secrecy serves the institutional needs of the CIA. By normal rights, the tactical military use of drones would be reserved to the Pentagon. For the CIA to operate the drone program it must be a covert operation, which in turn justifies the classification of the program, indeed, even its existence, as top secret. In this case, Clinton’s references to events that an inspector general wants to call top secret could just as well have appeared on the front page of your morning paper.

Lesson No. 3: The guardians of secrecy not only insist that facts in plain view are secret; they also attempt to classify materials that have already been released.

One of the biggest mistakes one can make in studying secrecy inside the Beltway is to assume that it actually corresponds to the plain-English sense of the world. However, many of our government’s deepest secrets are hidden in plain sight and are known by just about everyone. The “top secret” CIA drone program—which has been studied and written about exhaustively—provides some excellent examples. The individual strikes have been tallied, measured, and assessed by persons with no access to classified data. And indeed, much of the unclassified, publicly accessible data about the program appears to be far superior and more reliable than the classified data produced by the CIA, which has repeatedly led senior officials to make false claims from which they have had to back down. But you’ll strain to find any meaningful information about the program coming from the mouths of senior policymaking figures in the U.S. government. Rather, when they speak of drone strikes, they switch to a bizarre passive voice. “Terrorists were killed,” they will say, “and credit is due to the intelligence community.” Rarely will they actually refer to the CIA-run drone program.

The masters of secrecy, straining to justify the program’s use in such circumstances, consistently cite their struggle to keep information away not from enemies but from the American public. The U.S. Government is inundated with FOIA requests and lawsuits constantly testing its classification of the drone program and demanding more information. Too many public statements by U.S. officials acknowledging the program (and there have already been a great number of slipups, most of them attributable to a single person—former CIA director and secretary of defense Leon Panetta) could prejudice the government’s tenuous position in these litigations. The inspector general doesn’t want any statement made that acknowledges that there is a CIA drone program. And even though the emails were unclassified when sent, there is now a drive to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube, as it were, by retroactively classifying them.

Lesson No. 4: Classification is used by government officials to rein in those who work under them; violations rarely result in punishment for the powerful.

As Jonathan Swift once said, “Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.” And no area of the law proves this quite as well as law governing national security secrecy. Ostensibly, national security classifications exist to protect the country from the disclosure of information that could, if more widely known, adversely affect it. Practically, however, scholars who have studied the use of secrecy by bureaucracies around the world over the last hundred and fifty years note that it really has another effect: it builds the authority and power of those at the apex of the system and silences and binds those at the base, even though they may have little access to sensitive information.

Civil libertarians delight in Clinton’s current problems with classified information and emails. They quote the sanctimonious statements she made as secretary of state chastising whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and demanding his punishment. And they’re right about one thing: the secrecy system has never been applied on the basis of equal justice before the law. Just think of Bob Woodward’s series of books, which have through many administrations consistently disclosed some of the nation’s most closely guarded military and intelligence service secrets. Woodward harvested this information from presidents, cabinet officers, and senior aides. And no prosecution has ever resulted from these leaks. That’s because the Beltway assumes that leaking is a perk of power.

Lesson No. 5: Secrecy regularly deprives decision-makers of the information they need in order to form valid judgments.

Beltway insiders routinely agree that Washington makes far too many secrets. They also accept that secrecy is a tool used for bureaucratic antics. But by and large they insist that there’s no real downside to the secrecy game.

This is nonsense. In fact, secrecy regularly stands in the way of an informed public and a sensible political discussion of questions that are vital for the nation’s future. It protects those who have made serious mistakes and fear accountability. Moreover, the Clinton email controversy provides a perfect example of how Beltway politics magnifies the trivial, personal, and inconsequential, while clouding the truly significant choices that the country should be making.

An excellent starting point is where the controversy began, in Libya. Gowdy’s inquiry is supposed to be focused on a horrific raid on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, which claimed the lives of four American public servants and wounded many others. Notice how attention from this tragic incident, which has at its core a U.S. intelligence operation gone wrong, was shifted away to political intrigues that are completely unrelated. Yet the American project in Libya, which commenced in 2011, is hugely important. It has by any reasonable measure been a failure. The Obama Administration, following the advice of Secretary Clinton and others, joined with the United Kingdom and France in a military operation that killed Muammar Qaddafi (who only weeks earlier had been portrayed as a U.S. ally and praised for his cooperation with U.S. intelligence) and destroyed most of the institutions of the Libyan state. Rather than then provide a stable and secure environment in which Libyans could build a new state, as the allies promised, Libya was abandoned to chaos and proxy warfare. In essence, Obama in Libya was a repeat of the mistakes that Bush made in Iraq but a few years earlier, which Obama and Clinton had both criticized. The world of Beltway politics, however, would much rather ignore this horrendously failed project, which has plummeted an entire people into despair and has given rise to thousands crossing open seas with great loss of life. The Beltway prefers to talk about personal use of email servers. And in so doing, such politics demands, as usual, that the world stand on its head. Secrecy facilitates this process of distraction at every step, providing a plausible reason for not discussing things politicians prefer to avoid.

Similarly, secrecy has been used to avoid public discussion of the CIA’s drone program. Clinton is being chided for even referring to its existence in internal emails. However the real scandal is that now, more than a decade into the program, there has been no public accounting. At this point, it is impossible to call the program a success, a fact that General Michael Flynn, one of its military architects, acknowledges, but most Americans are so poorly and selectively informed about it—again thanks to the pruning power of secrecy—that they don’t see the problems.

Secrecy means that decision-makers are routinely deprived of the information they need to form valid judgments. And in a democracy, that means the voters.


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