Protecting secret calls for strong measures

Linda Chavez
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Posted: Jun 28, 2006 12:01 AM

Yet another leak of highly classified intelligence has made fighting terrorists more difficult. But the media claim they -- not our elected leaders -- know what's best for the country. Last week, the New York Times and several other newspapers revealed that since 9/11, the Treasury Department and other federal agencies have been following the terrorist money trail by monitoring financial transactions through a Belgium-based banking consortium known as SWIFT (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication). In defending its actions, the New York Times' executive editor, Bill Keller, said that he "remained convinced that the administration's extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest."

The newspaper's hubris is breathtaking, but it is important to remember the Times would not have had the story without the help of current and former government officials who decided to betray the nation's trust. They -- not the Times -- should be the subject of criminal prosecution.

We have long passed the era when we expect the media to behave responsibly, much less patriotically. News organizations will break any story they're lucky enough to get their hands on, and they don't much care who is hurt in the process. Call me a cynic, but I think it's obvious the media don't give a tinker's damn about national security. But the same should not be true of the Times' sources, many of whom have sworn an oath to protect the nation's secrets.

Times reporters Eric Lichtblau and James Risen -- the duo who also broke the story about the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA) data-mining program a few months ago -- admit they discussed the SWIFT program with "nearly 20 current and former government officials and industry executives." Since both the Treasury Department and the CIA were involved in tracking financial transactions of suspected terrorists, it makes sense to start an investigation there. Anyone in either agency who might have had access to some or all of the details of the SWIFT operation should be subjected to lie detector tests immediately. Anyone who fails a test, or refuses to submit to one, should be dismissed.

It will be more difficult to pursue former officials, but they should be aggressively questioned by the FBI. For those who are not cooperative, Congress can, and should, subpoena them and compel them to answer questions under oath. Some might invoke their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves, but these persons should be permanently barred from obtaining security clearances.

And, of course, any investigation that turns up evidence of criminal wrongdoing should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

These measures will do nothing to mitigate the harm already done to the nation's security, but they could prevent future unlawful disclosures. It is simply not up to individual officials, no matter how well-intentioned they believe they are, to decide which secrets they will keep and which they will divulge. If they have legitimate concerns about the legality of a security measure, there are adequate means to raise the alarm. Every agency has an inspector general to whom they can appeal. They can ask to be relieved of their duties. They can contact the appropriate Congressional oversight committee. In some instances, they might approach the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. What they cannot do is publicly reveal secrets they are sworn to protect.

It's hard to remember a time when classified leaks were as numerous as they are now -- or when such leaks posed as a big a peril as these do. In recent months, three major classified programs have been revealed on the front pages of the country's leading papers: the SWIFT program, the NSA surveillance program, and the existence of secret overseas CIA-run prisons where suspected terrorists have been questioned and detained.

This last story earned the Washington Post the Pulitzer Prize, but it should have earned jail time for those who revealed the information to the Post. Perhaps if this security breach had resulted in criminal prosecution, we would not have had to deal with subsequent violations.