The recently released book chronicling the SEAL Team 6 raid that killed and captured Osama Bin Laden has garnered a lot of controversy of late for its release of sensitive and classified information. Earlier this summer, a similar string of outcries emerged in response to President Obama’s alleged carelessness in handling classified information in cases such as the so-called “kill list” or the use of cyber attacks against Iran. As conventional wisdom would have it, classified intelligence should never be leaked.
In reality, there are circumstances in which leaked intelligence could actually make a country more secure and could help to deter its adversaries. The best way to approach this issue is to ask the question, under what conditions is leaked intelligence harmful to national security? For sure, it is not in every situation.
In many cases, leaked intelligence could strengthen national security if certain capabilities need to be known by an adversary.
For instance, there is a famous scene in Dr. Strangelove where the title character chastises the Russians for not letting the Americans know that they were developing a doomsday device. The only way it could serve as a deterrent, he explains, is for the Russians to let the Americans know about it. If the U.S. had known that its actions would set off the doomsday device that would destroy the whole world, then it would think twice before acting. Instead, Russian operational security actually weakened deterrence.
In contrast, leaking information is harmful when it compromises human sources in an ongoing operation or when some specific collecting technology is revealed allowing the adversary to adjust and stay off the grid.
In Iran’s case, if the ayatollahs decide to build a nuclear weapon, the development of the device would have to be kept absolutely secret; however, once the bomb is ready, it serves no purpose if Iran’s adversaries do not know that it has gone nuclear.
For ongoing covert action, it is absolutely essential that sensitive information is not leaked.
None of this is to say that the intelligence community should abandon its long-held practice of training employees to keep quiet about what they do at work. The default position for all IC officers should be to not divulge highly classified information.
Having said that, though, it is important to understand when it is appropriate to leak intelligence, when it is dangerous to do so, and when it is inconsequential. It is not helpful when prominent elected officials decry any and all leaks as haphazard. One can certainly hold to the position that leaking intelligence for political gain is indecent, but it is a wholly different conversation if the case is to be made that leaks compromise national security.
If the U.S. is to have coercive leverage against its adversaries, there are certain situations where it is important that American capabilities and intentions be precisely known to adversaries so that they might think twice about challenging important U.S. interests. It may not be a good idea for a high value Al Qaeda target to know that he is next. But it is probably a good idea to make it publicly known that if he continues doing what he’s doing, he just might be.