What do you call someone who, in violation of her oath, reveals government secrets to a reporter, who then prints them and exposes a clandestine operation designed to get information from suspected terrorists that could save American lives?
Here is what one dictionary says about that word: "One who betrays another's trust or is false to an obligation or duty." The word so defined is traitor.
The Central Intelligence Agency fired an intelligence officer after determining she leaked classified information to a Washington Post reporter about secret overseas prisons used for interrogating suspected terrorists. News reports say the fired employee is Mary McCarthy, who was appointed by former National Security Adviser Samuel Berger as special assistant to President Bill Clinton and senior director for Intelligence Programs. Berger has had his own problems. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges that he stole five copies of highly classified terrorism documents while doing "research" at the National Archives building.
Virtually all people who handle classified documents, whether members of Congress or their staff, or employees of the Central Intelligence Agency, take an oath not to reveal those documents to anyone without proper authorization. McCarthy is alleged to have violated that oath.
On Nov. 9, 1775, the Continental Congress adopted its own oath of secrecy. The language may seem antiquated, but it appeals to character qualities that appear to be in short supply today: "Resolved: That every member of this Congress considers himself under the ties of virtue, honour and love of his country, not to divulge, directly or indirectly, any matter or thing agitated or debated in Congress, which a majority of the Congress shall order to be kept secret. And that if any member shall violate this agreement, he shall be expelled (from) this Congress, and deemed an enemy to the liberties of America, and liable to be treated as such."
Virtue? Honour? Love of his country? Where does one see such character qualities lauded or even taught in contemporary culture? Certainly not often in the media.
The Washington Post's Dana Priest won the Pulitzer Prize for printing secrets allegedly leaked to her by McCarthy. Priest also won a George Polk Award and a prize from the Overseas Press Club. Leonard Downie Jr., the Post's executive editor, said people who provide citizens the information they need to hold their government accountable should not "come to harm for that."
Would Downie have felt the same if Americans were leaking information to the Nazis or the Japanese during World War II? Imagine this scenario: A terrorist has information that, if revealed, could save tens of thousands of American lives. But interrogators cannot question him because leaks to the media prevent them from engaging in practices that would pry loose the critical information. Would Downie be defending the "right" of government employees to undermine the security of his country in the aftermath of a preventable attack? Former CIA operative Aldrich Ames went to prison for selling American secrets to the Soviet Union. McCarthy allegedly gave hers away. If she is prosecuted and found guilty, her fate should be no less severe.
This isn't a political game in which a Clinton administration official serves as a mole for the Democrats within a Republican administration and then leaks information that may benefit her party; this is potentially harmful to the nation.
Has politics come to this: that the national security of this country can be compromised for political gain?
In previous wars, traitors were shot or served lengthy prison terms. Now they get fired and the reporter who prints the secrets, possibly damaging her nation, wins prestigious journalism awards. Morality and patriotism appear to have been turned upside down.
CIA Director Porter Goss is known to take leaks seriously. He has called the damage they cause "very severe to our capabilities to carry out our mission."
No one can recall a recent example of a CIA employee being unmasked for leaking information to the media, though many have done so. For the safety and security of the country, McCarthy's firing should serve as a warning to anyone who takes an oath to preserve their nation's secrets that they will no longer be able to count on getting away with violating that oath.
- Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.