The Edge of Defense
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|Carlo Muñoz||August 12th 2012|
Unauthorized leaks of sensitive information regarding American-led counterterrorism operations have "absolutely" damaged U.S. national security, according to a top administration official. "There have been some devastating leaks," chief White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said Wednesday. "It's unconscionable what has gone out. And the president has made his displeasure abundantly clear to his senior team," he said during a speech at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.
In recent months, a spate of information leaks detailing highly-classified U.S. counterterrorism operations have made their way into U.S. and international media reports. The leaked intelligence included information about a U.S. cyberattack on Iran, a terrorist “kill list” and a double agent operating in Yemen. While refusing to comment on any specific operation that may have been compromised as a result of the leaks, Brennan pointed out their disclosure has done irreparable damage to U.S. efforts to curb terror groups like al Qaeda and others.
"There are very, very critical national security matters that require there to be protection of that information so it doesn't get out, so that we can keep the American people safe," Brennan said. As a result, lawmakers are pursuing a number of mandates that would crack down on government officials who disclose sensitive or classified information without permission. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have approved legislation that will strip intelligence officials of their clearances for leaking to the press and block national-security officials from making contact with the media even after they've left the government. The Senate bill also required congressional notification of all authorized classified disclosures, and threatened to revoke federal pensions for members of the intelligence community who leak classified or otherwise sensitive national security information to the media and are convicted by a federal court for such crimes.
While the Senate bill is designed to protect ongoing U.S. counterterror operations, congressional Republicans have used the legislation as a bully pulpit to slam the White House's handing of the leaks.
GOP lawmakers have repeatedly accused administration officials of orchestrating the leaks for political gain.
The White House counterterror chief himself has been accused of disclosing information publicly on the use of American drones to take out terror leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.
Brennan shot back as those claims, calling the partisan attacks "highly irresponsible," particularly when addressing such a critical national security issue such as the disclosure of classified information.
"It's easy to get up in front of a TV camera, quite frankly, and point fingers at the White House and say they're doing it for this or that," Brennan said, regarding the onslaught of GOP attacks against the White House over the issue.
"What we need to do is to make sure that we are dealing with these issues in a very serious manner because the national security of the United States is at risk," he said.
In response to the GOP attacks leveled at him, Brennan admitted that striking that balance between an informed public and maintaining operational security has created tension in the White House and across the administration.
"I have said things about our counterterrorism program and in terms of what we do and how we're trying to do it… consistent with the law, our ethics and values as a people. I'm going to continue to do that," Brennan said.
"We do have an obligation to tell the American people about what the threats are coming from al-Qaeda," he added.
However, keeping the American public informed cannot come at the risk of endangering ongoing military or intelligence operations being carried out worldwide.
Striking that delicate balance between national security priorities and the public's right to know may ultimately derail the Senate's efforts to crackdown on unauthorized leaks.
Senators are already considering softening the penalties for leaks before the intelligence committee's legislation hits the Senate floor.
In July, more than a dozen civil-liberties groups sent an open letter to the Senate panel claiming the anti-leak measures went too far in hampering media access on issues of national security.
“This policy does not protect our nation’s legitimate secrets, but instead opens the door to abuse and chills critical disclosures of wrongdoing," according to the letter.
A spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Intelligence panel, acknowledged senators are taking these criticisms into account. The spokesman declined to comment on specific changes to the bill, but suggested they were possible.
"Sen. Feinstein is looking at the comments and is open to changes going forward. She has said the bill is a work in progress," spokesman Brian Weiss told The Hill last Monday, regarding possible changes to the Senate legislation.
The full Senate is expected to consider the bill in the tight, eight-legislative-day window in September when lawmakers return from August recess.
Carlo Muñoz writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted.