David Frum wants to defend Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) from allegations that she sold her influence to get charges reduced or dropped in an espionage case, but he ignores the corruption in favor of making a confused defense of leaks. In “The Real Jane Harman Scandal,” Frum instead accuses the accusers for attacking Harman and the AIPAC-connected ring while supposedly letting the New York Times off the hook for exposing national-security programs. Frum manages to prove that he can’t tell the difference between apples and oranges, and also to undermine the notion that bureaucrats don’t set policy:
Then, at last, in October 2005 the mole hunters found their man: a career Defense Department employee named Larry Franklin. Franklin’s offense? Brace yourself …
Franklin had learned of U.S. intelligence reports that Iranian sabotage teams were operating inside Iraqi Kurdistan. These reports were being disregarded for a reason very familiar in the Bush years: They contained uncomfortable news that higher-ups did not wish to know.
Franklin, however, thought the information important—maybe vitally important. He thought it needed to be pushed up the organization chart. Lacking the clout to move the information himself, he decided to do what frustrated officials often do: He leaked it.
Specifically, he leaked the information to two employees—American citizens both—of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in hope that they could galvanize a response from their contacts in the White House. The two, Steve Rosen and Kenneth Weissman, shared Franklin’s information with journalists, colleagues, and the Israeli embassy.
For this action, all three were charged with criminal offenses.
Yes, they were, and for good reason — they all committed crimes. Government employees and contractors with clearances to access classified data get constant instruction on how that data is to be handled and protected. I know this, because for a few years a long time ago, I had such a clearance while working in the defense industry. There are no conscience exceptions to these laws, nor are there any codicils that say that a clearance allows the holder to conduct their own foreign policy or defense strategy. Leaking classified information is a serious crime, no matter who does it, nor to whom they leak it. The government has to maintain control over the handling of classified information, or else there’s no point in classifying it at all.
Frum then confuses the leakers with the recipients:
Two months after Franklin’s sentencing, another leak of classified information hit the newspapers. On Dec. 16, 2005, The New York Times reported the existence of a vast, unknown National Security Agency program to intercept foreign electronic communications.
Unlike the Franklin leak, which was intended to jolt an unwilling bureaucracy into action to defend the country, the Times leak was intended (by the leakers) to sabotage a program integral to that defense. The leak lethally compromised a vital intelligence-collection effort. In terms of its direct and immediate usefulness to America’s enemies, the Times story may count as the worst betrayal of vital national information in a generation.
Needless to say, nobody has ever been prosecuted for that or for any of the other leaks that did actual damage to American security since 9/11, such as The Washington Post leak that revealed the locations of prisons in which high-value al Qaida detainees were being held.
I don’t think you’re going to find many defenders of the NYT here, but let’s clarify what Frum muddies here. The Times did not “leak” the information. The Times did not have a clearance to access that information. They published information provided to them by a leaker. The Times in this analogy is not the equivalent of Franklin; that would be the people who gave the information to the Times. One can make a case for the Times being the moral equivalent of Rosen and Weissman, but not really a legal case. And to answer Frum’s silly Pulitzer outrage, the government doesn’t award those, either.
In any event, the lack of a prosecution of the Times for their entirely irresponsible publication does not negate the fact that Franklin, Weissman, and Rosen all broke the law. They took classified government information and gave it to a foreign embassy without approval from the legal authority over that data. They may or may not have had altruistic motives for it, but that’s an issue for sentencing, not a defense against the charges. And if the Department of Justice had ever discovered who leaked all that material to the Times or the Post, they’d have been next, especially when Bush was in office.
Nor does this touch at all the allegations which Harman faces. The article published by CQ Politics based on NSA wiretap transcripts make it appear that Harman agreed to wield her influence to block the prosecution of the three in exchange for support for her bid to chair the Intel Committee. She’s bargaining to obstruct justice in exchange for lobbyist support for her ambitions. If these transcripts check out, then Harman committed a corrupt act regardless of whether one likes the prosecution of the three or not. She’s selling influence to obstruct justice, which has only a tangential connection to the case itself.
It’s hard to see how Frum could be more wrong about this case than he is in this essay.