Too many secrets

May 01, 2006

With the firing last week of a veteran CIA officer for allegedly sharing classified information with the press, the post-9/11 frenzy over protecting secrets reached ugly new heights.

The word "traitor" appeared on editorial pages. The House authorized the director of national intelligence to look into whether pensions should be denied to federal workers caught leaking. Lawmakers pondered tightening espionage laws to make it easier to bring criminal prosecutions in such cases.

It's almost as though in their frustration at combating such an elusive enemy as global terrorism, Americans have directed their fury toward an easier target: each other.

The problem isn't too many leakers, but too many secrets. More and more benign, inane and venal activities are being conducted behind the cloak of national security, and there are fewer and fewer authorized channels for critics to blow the whistle on them. That's what needs to be fixed.

Consider Mary O. McCarthy, the CIA employee alleged to have told The Washington Post about secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe. She denies being a source on that story, but the Post obviously had inside sources. Are they traitors for making sure the American people learned something they have a right to know? Hardly.

Before going to the press, federal whistleblowers can register complaints internally with the inspector general assigned to their agency. But under the Bush administration, many IG posts have lost their independence. In the case of Ms. McCarthy, she worked in the office of a CIA inspector general who was considered the ultimate "company" man.

Another outlet is Congress, where a whistleblower from the Food and Drug Administration took complaints in 2004 about safety reviewers being too cozy with drug companies. But Congress has to be willing to listen, as Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley was in that instance. Intelligence Committee leaders have been far less open to examining the administration's policies.

And for a congressional inquiry to succeed, the White House must cooperate. Mr. Bush won't even share with most of Congress details of another secret and potentially illegal program leaked to the press: warrantless wiretapping within the United States by the National Security Agency.

Leakers, especially those who break the law, will always be taking a risk in passing along to the public information the government doesn't want known. But the occurrence of such unauthorized revelations would decrease if there were fewer secrets and more receptive channels for internal critics to air their views.

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