Poor "Scooter" Libby. Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide, who stepped aside after being indicted last year, could have been a heroic whistle-blower. If only he had leaked about anything other than the fact that President Bush critic Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA.
It still is not clear that this information in any way harmed national security. Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was probably not undercover. But Libby has been portrayed as the greatest internal threat to the nation since the Rosenbergs. The media demanded an Inspector Javert-style investigation into the leak, which resulted in Libby's indictment — not for the leak itself, but for his supposedly dishonest answers about his role.
As his legal bills mount, Libby must be stunned to watch the lionization of the leakers who exposed the secret National Security Agency eavesdropping program and secret U.S. prisons in Europe. The new rule apparently is that leaks are acceptable only when they actually compromise important national-security programs. If, in contrast, a leak does no real harm to national security, but can be used as a cudgel against President Bush, then it is an act of national betrayal.
Democrats pooh-pooh any negative fallout from the NSA leak on grounds that terrorists already know that we are trying to surveil them. The furor over the program, however, reminds terrorists to be very careful. This is not nothing. Mafia cases are often built on the astonishing sloppiness that complacency lures mobsters into.
If terrorists didn't know that roughly a third of global communications traffic is now routed through the United States, presenting an easy opportunity to monitor it, now they do. Administration officials strongly suggest that there are aspects of the program that are still secret and extremely sensitive. There is no way to evaluate the merits of this claim, since no one knows what these specifics are. But we are going to find out.
Already, journalists are writing instructive reading for the people trying to evade surveillance. A Washington Post story published this past weekend reported on how we use "link analysis" to connect one terrorist to another (shared telephone numbers, post-office boxes and contact addresses). The story also explained what behavior is likely to target someone for surveillance, e.g., visiting the Pakistani province of Waziristan and repeatedly switching cell phones.
If none of this was classified, the logic of this kind of story means revealing more rather than less. When the Washington Post reported on secret prisons the U.S. had in Europe to hold top-level terror suspects, it didn't identify the countries involved, but the European press quickly outed Romania and Poland. The two countries could now be terrorist targets; they have been subject to intense criticism within Europe; and they have reason never to trust the U.S. again. One Polish insider told NR's Byron York, "The next time we are asked to do an operation in common, we will always think twice about your intelligence community's ability to keep a secret."
Think twice? How about think three or four times? We have become utterly incapable of secrecy. Ever since Vietnam and Watergate, many people don't trust the government with any secret programs whatsoever. It is true that openness and transparency are important, but it can't be that secrecy is never a good idea — the operating assumption of the left that hails every leak except Libby's.
The media shares the assumption. In a review of the new book by James Risen, the New York Times reporter who disclosed the NSA program, author Walter Isaacson notes that Risen "appears to feel that if something is secret and interesting, it should be exposed."
The U.S. is in a kind of arms race with al Qaeda. They innovate in their methods and we try to innovate in ours, but without revealing too much so the terrorists can't adjust in turn. The advantage our enemies have is that eventually some reporter is always going to give them a heads-up.