After journalists publicized allegations that Russian military spies offered the Taliban "bounties" for attacking U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence leaders quickly issued rebuttals — not against the intelligence underlying these claims, but against its publication.
"Unfortunately, unauthorized disclosures now jeopardize our ability to ever find out the full story with respect to these allegations," said Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe. Gina Haspel, director of the CIA, concurred: "Leaks compromise and disrupt the critical interagency work to collect, assess, and ascribe culpability." Of course, the public has a right to know about government breakdowns covered up through classification. But these officials do have a point. Unauthorized disclosures of classified information can hinder intelligence agencies' ability to verify intelligence. And, as Ratcliffe added, "It is also, simply put, a crime."
There's an easy way to limit leaks like these, though: Reform the intelligence whistleblowing system. Let whistleblowers securely approach Congress when they witness wrongdoing, even if what they witness is classified.
Under the current system, intelligence whistleblowers can only approach Congress through either their agency's or the intelligence community's inspector general. These internal watchdogs investigate whistleblowers' "urgent concerns," and send their findings on credible complaints to their agency's director, who forwards the complaint to the congressional intelligence committees. But these directors, as we saw just before last fall's impeachment inquiry, can stop this process with the stroke of a pen.
Why would intelligence officials knowingly commit a crime by leaking information to the news media? Because the intelligence process broke down — and American lives were on the line. As Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA senior official who oversaw operations across Europe and Russia until his retirement last year, tweeted: "I don't like leaks . . . But clearly this was done because US forces were being hunted and the [White House/National Security Council] was paralyzed." When the process grinds to a halt, and the president isn't acting on (or even reading) the intelligence he's given, the professionals who are a part of that process need to sound the alarm. Public attention acts as a defibrillator; it provides an electric shock to a system in stasis.
These leaks about Afghanistan accomplished that aim. On June 29, articles describing the allegations were splashed across the front page of The Washington Post and the New York Times. Senior government leaders briefed both Republican and Democratic lawmakers (albeit one group before the other). Policymakers now seek more information as the public watches aghast, asking what happened, how it happened and what can be done.
Again, Ratcliffe and Haspel are right; these secrets' publication makes their verification hard. Especially given that just last month, this information existed only behind the intelligence community's veil of secrecy. However, if they consistently championed a whistleblowing system where intelligence officers could securely approach Congress with their concerns, then these stories might have remained out of the headlines.
But they didn't. When the Ukraine whistleblower approached the House Intelligence Committee last fall for informal guidance on whistleblower procedures, Ratcliffe railed against both the whistleblower and the committee's chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. Haspel's public silence spoke volumes.
If either had spoken up to protect an intelligence officer who followed the rules and made a protected disclosure, then the recent leaks of sensitive intelligence could have been made to the congressional intelligence committees rather than to the news media. But under our current whistleblower system, making a disclosure directly to these committees is difficult, to say the least. As the public learned last year, our intelligence whistleblower protections are a patchwork of laws and policies, and disclosures must be made to certain people to trigger protections from reprisal.
Congress needs to clarify these protections to ensure that whistleblowers can come directly to the relevant congressional committees with their concerns. Even if the concern is something seemingly small, the consequences of inaction can be deadly. Lawmakers, the intelligence community's overseers, deserve to know. They can seek corrective action on whistleblowers' behalf; securely, maintaining the information's secrecy while examining the problems.
There is recent precedent for this. A provision in last year's annual defense spending bill allows employees outside the intelligence community to make some classified whistleblowing disclosures to any committee in Congress that needs to know. For example, if a diplomat in the State Department's Political-Military Affairs Bureau needs to report wrongdoing to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, they are now allowed to approach the committee directly even if the wrongdoing is classified by the bureau. This ensures open lines of communication between people cleared to handle and receive such sensitive information. Whistleblowers can spotlight issues, Congress can conduct oversight and no state secrets are spilled along the way. It's that simple.
Unfortunately, this legislation has one big gap. It doesn't apply to intelligence community whistleblowers. They're the ones whose classified disclosures Congress most needs to hear. Under current law, it is murky whether and how intelligence whistleblowers may even approach the intelligence committees on Capitol Hill. Doing so paints a target on the whistleblower's back, and they aren't given much protection in practice. Whistleblowers are willing to risk their livelihoods to protect American lives. The least Congress can do is mitigate that risk by protecting whistleblowers and expanding their protected reporting channels for the intelligence community.
If they really want to end the leaks, our leaders must first embrace the whistleblowers.
Irvin McCullough is a national security analyst with the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower support nonprofit. He wrote this for The Washington Post.