Obama Cracks Down on Classified Leaks

The Obama administration is quietly ratcheting up its campaign against national-security leaks with a series of moves that are surprising intelligence-community veterans. One recent example: a memo, signed by National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair before his departure last month, that will require Justice Department prosecutors to make quick decisions about charging federal employees suspected of disclosing classified info.

The memo, which got full backing from the intel agencies, lays out a new protocol for the handling of leak probes. Justice prosecutors will have to meet deadlines once intelligence agencies refer to them instances of suspected leaking, says a senior intel official who asked not to be identified talking about a sensitive document. If they don't, the cases will be returned to the agencies, where officials could impose tough disciplinary sanctions--like stripping employees of security clearance--even when there's not enough evidence to criminally prosecute them. "If you're in the intelligence community and you lose your security clearance, you're pretty much out of luck," says another administration official who requested anonymity for the same reason. (Wendy Morigi, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, says the new policy will "streamline" leak probes and "help to detect and deter unauthorized disclosures." A Justice spokesman says, "We take leaks of classified information extremely seriously.")

The impetus for the new protocol was frustration with the fact that, under George W. Bush, high-profile probes (into disclosures about secret CIA prisons and the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping) dragged on for years. Already Justice and military prosecutors are targeting leakers more aggressively. Last week military officials confirmed they had arrested an Army intel analyst for allegedly giving classified U.S. combat videos to the whistle-blower Web site WikiLeaks. Justice prosecutors recently indicted a former NSA official for allegedly leaking information about a mismanaged computer program, and they secured a 20-month prison sentence against an FBI linguist who leaked to a blogger. In another surprise move, New York Times reporter James Risen was subpoenaed to testify about the disclosure of a botched CIA effort to disrupt Iran's nuclear program 10 years ago. And more cases are in the pipeline: Justice prosecutors have targeted a U.S. intel official who allegedly disclosed information to Fox News reporter James Rosen about a briefing for senior White House officials related to North Korea's nuclear program.

Ironically, the White House has publicly touted its backing of a shield law, which would give journalists limited protection from having to disclose confidential sources, as evidence of a commitment to transparency. But privately, officials say the recent moves show they are tougher on leaks than Bush officials were. (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.) "How many leak cases were there in the last 10 years [before Obama took office]?" asks the senior intel official. Now, the official adds, "there's great commitment to try to do something about leaks."