Having dealt with the investigation of, and fall-out from, Edward Snowden’s treachery while I served as CIA’s Chief of Counterintelligence (CI), the ongoing flap over the exposure of US classified documents pertaining to the war in Ukraine evokes unpleasant memories.
I have great empathy both with the national security professionals who must deal with the consequences of that exposure and with those now charged with investigating the actions of the Air National Guard airman who is suspected of being responsible for those leaks. In an echo of the Manning case, this investigation will likely focus on the exposure to classified information by a junior member of the military who may have been afforded access well beyond his need to know.
Investigators will also be considering whether the suspected leaker could have been part of a sophisticated Russian intelligence disinformation operation intended to diminish the prospects for success of a much-discussed forthcoming Ukrainian offensive and to undermine western support for Ukraine as it confront Vladimir Putin’s aggression. This would, in my experience, be unlikely.
Disinformation operations do occur and Russian intelligence services – like their Soviet forbearers – have a rich history in this regard. The Russians will certainly seek to exploit these exposures by trafficking and amplifying the secrets contained therein to the detriment of the US and its allies. However, the difficulties and risks inherent in mounting such an operation – which can involve the doctoring of documents, the fabrication and implanting of computer files, or the potential exposure of any human source providing the information being trafficked– tend to militate against this possibility.
It is axiomatic to the craft of counterintelligence that it is always best to rule out the most probable cause of a loss of sensitive information before ascribing value and assigning resources to the pursuit of a less probable explanation. And past experience should tell us that the reasons for this act of betrayal likely lie in human motivations and frailties that are at once both banal and disturbing.
Whoever is proven to be behind this leak, like Manning, Snowden, and Reality Winner, etc. before them – is likely one of those people whom Rebecca West decades ago, described as “the small fry (who because)…science, adding to our armoury, continually demands more mechanics and more clerks and with every demand makes the problem of security more difficult to solve…also have the power of betrayal”.
Motivated to act out of egotism that the leaker themselves dares not acknowledge, they may try to profess allegiance to a ‘higher’ calling as justification for breaking a sworn oath of secrecy, despite the fact that the U.S. has channels available to whistleblowers that protect national security secrets by not sharing them in open forums where those who want to hurt us can access them.
In response to this incident, the US Government – as we did in the wake of the Wikileaks and Snowden breaches in particular – can and should revisit and reinforce measures implemented in response to those earlier leaks in an effort to better protect the secrets entrusted to it. This would include consideration of enhanced vetting and technical monitoring programs as well as efforts to restrict access to classified information to those with a genuine need to know. As the late DCI Richard Helms observed in his memoir, “the probability of leaks escalates exponentially each time a classified document is exposed to another person…Effective compartmentation is fundamental to all secret activity”.
If press reports that many of the documents exposed were either photographed or re-written by hand; perhaps from memory in a manner reminiscent of that employed by Ana Belen Montes while spying for Cuba; measures must be taken to close insofar as possible, the so-called “analog gap” in the technical monitoring of those with access to classified information.
If convicted, it is important that the suspect be punished – and is seen to be punished – to the fullest extent of the law. This is important on at least two counts.
First, they will have been proven to deserve such a penalty for this level of treason. (I realize that ‘treason’ legally defined only applies in time of war, but I think the word as normally understood best captures the true sense of the act of betrayal for which this person will have been proven guilty.)
Second, punishing a convicted leaker begins to restore a deterrent effect regarding leak cases that has been appreciably eroded when clear violations of the Espionage Act were ignored or excused based on the perceived righteousness of the cause espoused by the perpetrator.
We saw this in the Wikileaks affair, in the case of Snowden and in the tsunami of unresolved – and consequently unprosecuted – instances of politically motivated leaking and mishandling of classified information over the past decade.
Such failures to uphold and enforce laws protecting the secrets that are crucial to defending our country can have very real consequences. For instance, how many of those who excused Snowden’s betrayal as the act of a ‘whistleblower’ (falsely) claiming he was compelled to act in order to expose purported US Government surveillance of its own citizens, feel the same way now that Putin has granted him Russian citizenship?
I also would not be surprised if the celebrity afforded Snowden and his ilk – and the seeming inability of many to name those who violated their oaths to protect the secrets entrusted to them as the traitors they are – is found to have emboldened the leaker of the latest intelligence – whomever that is proven to be – to emulate him.
We must, irrespective of personal perspective or political persuasion, have the principled courage to call out acts of betrayal if only because failure to do so only serves to encourage more of the same. As the Roman poet Ovid wrote:” Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”
Mark Kelton retired from CIA as a senior executive with 34 years of experience in intelligence operations including serving as CIA’s Deputy Director for Counterintelligence. He is currently a partner at the FiveEyes Group and is Board Chair of Spookstock, a charity that benefits the CIA Memorial Foundation, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and the Defense Intelligence Memorial Foundation.