Secrets and lies

Tom Maguire makes a point which he correctly says is obvious: when George W. Bush says that he’s against leaks of classified information, he means that he’s against the revelation of information that might damage him politically.

Right. Obvious. But obvious to whom?

You and Tom and I knew all that. But of course the public, and in particular the Fox-News-viewing public, didn’t. A substantial chunk of the voters took seriously the idea that the President was opposed to leaks of classified material because having that material known might damage the national security.

If the information helps Bush politically, he’s happy to have it out there, even if that means being sloppy about procedures and dishonestly selective in the choice of what gets released. When Libby leaked the information in that NIE to Judith Miller, the document was still stamped “Secret,” which meant that anyone else who discussed it would have been violating an Executive Order and possibly (in the Bush interpretation) violating the law. Libby told Miller that the National Intelligence Estimate reported the Niger-yellowcake story as a “key judgment,”which it didn’t, and Libby failed to mention parts of the Estimate that cast doubt on the Niger story. Of course he also didn’t mention a subsequent report from the National Intelligence Council that completely trashed the Niger fantasy.

So, on the Bush theory that underlies the Franklin prosecution and the criminal investigation into the leak about the NSA’s warrantless-wiretapping program, it was lawful for Libby to deceive reporters, but would have been a felony for anyone else to set them straight. (Of course Miller wanted to be deceived, but that’s a different problem.)

Again, I’m agreeing with Tom here: there’s nothing in the latest revelation that ought to change the mind of anyone who’s been paying attention. But, with any luck, tens of millions of people who have not been paying attention up until now will learn from this how bogus Bush’s commitment to keeping the secrets turns out to be.

[Some earlier reflections on the abuse of the classification system, and why criminalizing leaks of secrets is a bad idea.]

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: