Why Do Government Officials Leak Security Secrets?
Over the years, I have often been asked why government officials disclose sensitive, often classified national security secrets to journalists. No two instances are precisely the same, but in three decades covering or directing coverage of diplomatic, military and intelligence affairs for I found the most common reason was policy disagreements.
This week I’ll be reviewing several cases with a group of Stanford students. The one that most clearly reflects policy disagreements is a set of exclusive stories I did in July 1983, when I was reporting on the Reagan administration’s intelligence and military programs in Central America. The issue of Soviet encroachment in Central America may seem distant and strange today, but in the early 1980’s it was a hot-button topic in Washington. President Reagan and his top aides, especially William J. Casey, the director of central intelligence, feared that rising Soviet influence in the region threatened American security and could lead to a new Communist bloc south of the American border. The Sandinista government in Nicaragua was viewed as a potential pawn of Moscow and Havana and leftist guerillas in El Salvador were engaged in a civil war with American-backed government forces. The United States was overtly training and advising the Salvadoran army, and covertly assisting anti-Sandinista paramilitary forces in Nicaragua known as the Contras. The covert assistance eventually morphed into the Iran Contra scandal that seriously wounded Reagan and his administration.
During the summer of 1982, several years before the Iran-Contra operation exploded into public view, government officials showed me a set of Top Secret memos that Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger had sent to President Reagan, outlining steps and , where Contra forces were supported and frequently based. I used the information as the basis for an intensive round of interviews with officials at the White House, State Department, Pentagon and CIA. The result was a set of stories that created a stir in Washington and in Central America.
The people who showed me the memos opposed the administration’s efforts in Central America, fearing the United States was becoming entangled with repressive regimes and prosecuting a covert war in Nicaragua that defied the spirit, if not the letter, of limits set by Congress. The sources understood that they risked prosecution and prison time if they were discovered, but felt the issues were of paramount importance. They had been unsuccessful working the issues inside the government and hoped that the bright spotlight of press coverage would put a brake on the government plans and encourage Congressional and public debate about the Reagan policies. I accepted the information and pursued it, and The Times published on the front page, because we felt they contained information that Congress and the public had a right to know.
Other motivations lead government officials to reveal secret policy decisions or operations. Someone in one government agency may be motivated by a desire to outflank or embarrass a rival agency. The CIA and FBI have long played that game. Personal grudges can be a factor, or perhaps the thrill of seeing leaked information ignite a political firestorm. My job, through extensive reporting, was to determine if the information was accurate, to understand the policy and political context surrounding it and to present it in a fair and balanced way. In some cases when the disclosure of secrets might expose American troops or intelligence operatives to harm or compromise operations the government considered vital to American security, The Times would weigh government requests not to publish the information. No such requests were made about the stories I describe here.
is a consulting professor at the ,
where he is working on a book project about nuclear threats and the
joint effort of Sid Drell, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, Bill Perry and
George Shultz to reduce nuclear dangers. Before joining CISAC in the
fall of 2008, Mr. Taubman worked at
as a reporter and editor for nearly 30 years, specializing in national
security issues, including intelligence and defense policies and