Dan Coats, Richard Burr and Marco Rubio, all Republicans, represent Indiana, North Carolina and Florida, respectively, in the U.S. Senate and are members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Espionage is a dangerous business often seen only through a Hollywood lens. Yet the real-world operations, and lives, that inspire such thrillers are highly perishable. They depend on hundreds of hours of painstaking work and the ability to get foreigners to trust our government.
Sitting in a prison cell in Pakistan is one of those foreigners who trusted us. Shakil Afridi served as a key informant to the United States in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. This brave physician put his life on the line to assist U.S. efforts to track down the most-wanted terrorist in the world, yet our government left him vulnerable to the Pakistani tribal justice system, which sentenced him to 33 years for treason. The imprisonment and possible torture of this courageous man — for aiding the United States in one of the most important intelligence operations of our time — coincides with a deeply damaging leak in another case.
The world learned a few weeks ago that U.S. intelligence agencies and partners had disrupted an al-Qaeda plot to blow up a civilian aircraft using an explosive device designed by an affiliate in Yemen. This disclosure revealed sources and methods that could make future successes more difficult to achieve. The public release of information surrounding such operations also risks the lives of informants and makes it more difficult to maintain productive partnerships with other intelligence agencies. These incidents paint a disappointing picture of this administration’s judgment when it comes to national security.
The stakes are high: success or failure in our campaign to defeat plots by al-Qaeda. These leaks are inexcusable, and those responsible should be held accountable. FBI and CIA investigations are a good start, but more must be done to prevent intelligence disclosures of this magnitude.
The problem stems in part from the media’s insatiable desire for real-world information that makes intelligence operations look like those of filmmakers’ imaginations. That is understandable, but this hunger is fed by inexcusable contributions from current and former U.S. officials.
For example, why did the Obama administration hold a conference call May 7 with a collection of former government officials, some of whom work as TV contributors and analysts, to discuss the foiled bomb threat? In doing so, the White House failed to safeguard sensitive intelligence information that gave us an advantage over an adversary. Broadcasting highly classified information notifies every enemy of our tactics and every current and future partner of our inability to provide them the secrecy that often is the difference between life and death.
An underlying problem that can and must be fixed is the role of former national security officials who leave government and take jobs as talking heads for television networks. This common transition should be examined by Congress. Media outlets understandably value such officials because of their influential contacts, insights on security topics, and the provocative details and analysis they can add to a broadcast.
When they leave Capitol Hill, former members of Congress and their staff are, by law, prohibited from petitioning their former congressional colleagues for up to two years. Yet nothing restricts former security officials from using their government contacts and experience to provide live commentary on breaking news stories.
Furthermore, nothing limits current officials from using their media contacts to control a story — or to even promote a big-budget movie. We were shocked to learn that the White House has also leaked classified details of the bin Laden raid to Hollywood filmmakers, including the confidential identities of elite U.S. military personnel.
In almost all areas, we believe in the public’s right to full information. But national security often requires that intelligence operations remain under wraps. This can be the case especially when an operation has been a spectacular success and thus is enticing to the media.
As members of the Senate intelligence committee, we are exploring proposals to tighten restrictions on the way those who work in national security can exploit their contacts and experience after leaving public service so that damaging disclosures of intelligence do not occur. The keepers of our secrets need to be held to stricter standards. Of course, any congressional action must strike the proper balance of protecting First Amendment freedoms while safeguarding the intelligence that keeps our country safe.
Reckless disclosures of top-secret information compromise national security operations, undermine the hard work of our intelligence officers and overseas partners, and risk innocent lives. Congress’s intelligence oversight committees will not tolerate it, nor should the American people.