- - Tuesday, August 4, 2015


Secrets. Spies. Statutes. Secretaries.

Sounds like free association triggered by some of the stories making the rounds on the 24/7 news networks.

There was the announcement that Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard will be paroled after serving the 30 years mandated by his “life” sentence in 1985. This is the same Jonathan Pollard who caused George Tenet to threaten to resign as CIA director when the idea of a pardon or commutation was suggested during the Clinton administration.

But that was then.

Now, intelligence professionals aren’t particularly enthused about Pollard’s upcoming release and likely exit to Israel, but they aren’t up in arms either. He has served a tough sentence. The effects of time and Pollard’s demonstrated incompetence should quiet any fears that he might still be a source of important information. In fact, the greatest lesson he has to offer the Israelis deals with the stupidity of clumsy espionage, especially against your best friend.

There was no such benign indifference within the American intelligence community when Eric H. Holder Jr., the recently departed attorney general, suggested there “could be a resolution that everybody could ultimately be satisfied with” when it came to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

After all, Mr. Holder said, Snowden “spurred a necessary debate” and “we are in a different place as a result of the Snowden disclosures.”

We are indeed in a different place. It’s a place called “less safe.”

Snowden outed NSA’s acquisition of American metadata, which did prompt a debate, but one that ended by preserving the NSA’s access to the metadata even if it is now to be held by private phone companies.

But Snowden also provided hundreds of thousands of documents to self-described advocacy journalists detailing how America collects foreign intelligence. Ben Wittes’ admirable Lawfare blog carefully catalogs the damage done by Snowden in revealed tools, methods, locations, targets, successes and cooperating entities.

Why, in the name of American (or even global) privacy, would Snowden enable his journalist accomplices to accuse the United States of intercepting the satellite phone of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev? Or to claim that the NSA had acquired draft email messages written by the leadership of the Islamic State? Or to assert that the NSA was targeting the unencrypted communications of the Syrian military?

Damage wasn’t confined to the United States, The partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald was stopped at Heathrow Airport with a hard drive containing some 58,000 highly classified British intelligence documents.

Although there was reporting that some in the DNI’s office had toyed with the idea of a plea bargain, Mr. Holder’s suggestion didn’t seem to get much traction. Representatives at the Justice Department and the White House were quick to say that the government’s position — Snowden needs to come home and stand trial — had not changed.

Good thing. I can think of nothing more destructive for the intelligence community than leniency for Edward Snowden.

Now there are the emails of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. For anyone who has worked in government, a senior official’s establishment of a private (nongovernmental) email scheme is inconceivable.

Given the requirements of security, classification and records preservation, how could any responsible staff permit it, let alone abet it, since there is no way — even with the best of intentions — to make such an arrangement succeed?

Once the personal and professional are commingled, it’s impossible to disentangle them, at least in a way that isn’t — or doesn’t appear to be — self-serving.

Then how does a busy government official disaggregate classified from unclassified information in her head as she dashes off an email to staff, other officials, friends or acquaintances.

Equally important, how do her correspondents do that since the presumption in using an unclassified server is that no one will ever put secrets on it.

By the way, the bar for classification can be low. Even if it is universal knowledge that the leader of country X is a jerk, for example, the nation’s chief diplomat saying that in an email generally earns the correspondence at least a rating of confidential.

There also have been claims that, even with the redactions we are now seeing, there was nothing classified in the emails when they were written. That position is incoherent.

Classification doesn’t grow on a piece of raw data sitting on a server like a barnacle grows on the hull of a ship. The information may have been misclassified when the email was first sent; it wasn’t unclassified.

I suppose some might feel that people like me are too simplistic, absolutist or Manichean on these kinds of classification questions, but the culture of intelligence nurtures exactly that.

They tell a story in England about a young man who was condemned by his family for shirking military service during World War II by filling some civilian position in a small, nondescript town safely north of London, Bletchley Park. Rather than violate his oath of secrecy, the young man allowed his parents to go to their graves ignorant of the contribution he had made to breaking the Germans’ Enigma code.

That ethic explains a lot of George Tenet’s tough position against an early release of Pollard and the current hard line of the intelligence community’s inspector general on the contents of some State Department emails.

It also might be a useful data point for anyone considering a plea deal for Edward Snowden.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at mhayden@washingtontimes.com.

• Mike Hayden can be reached at mhayden@example.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide