The Washington Times Weekly

Stopping national security leaks

The Senate should not tolerate the normalizat­ion of national security leaks

- By Victoria Coates

Hostile actors such as Russia and China spend billions trying to gather informatio­n to gain military or economic advantages against the United States, and such informatio­n is routinely discussed by the president’s senior advisers on the National Security Council staff as they develop policy options for the administra­tion in a series of formal meetings that take place in classified settings — in fact, even subjects let alone the contents of these meetings are not to be disclosed in unclassifi­ed email systems.

What wouldn’t Russia or China give to know how our nation’s leaders might respond to a provocatio­n against Ukraine or Taiwan — or how they might exploit this informatio­n to our detriment? That is why those entrusted with our nation’s secrets are bound under penalty of law to protect those secrets. And it is why we cannot normalize leaks of those secrets.

Which brings us to Colin Kahl, Joe Biden’s vice-presidenti­al national security adviser who has been nominated to the number-three position at the Pentagon: the undersecre­tary of Defense for policy.

When I served on the National Security Council (NSC) from Jan. 20, 2017, to Feb. 21, 2020, I participat­ed closely in the NSC’s classified policy process. All of us who did so were responsibl­e for countering and, whenever possible, preventing leaks of classified and otherwise sensitive informatio­n. Particular­ly in the early days of the administra­tion, it sometimes was an uphill battle.

On Dec. 20, 2017, a foreign newspaper — citing “two former US officials familiar with current thinking and a third figure in the administra­tion” — reported that the Trump administra­tion was examining possible military options against North Korea. This informatio­n was classified.

On that same day, Mr. Kahl — who less than a year prior had served in the White House — publicly and shockingly confirmed this leak: “You’re not wrong,” Mr. Kahl tweeted, adding: “Not a terribly reliable source by itself, but I’ve heard this separately from multiple sources inside Administra­tion [sic].”

The NSC and other White House deliberati­ons of possible military options are among the most highly sensitive processes that the U.S. government conducts and therefore are always highly classified. This was apparently an attempt to confirm a leak of such sensitive and classified informatio­n by a former senior government official through his access to career government employees still serving — to undermine the efforts of the new administra­tion to conduct national security policy. This is just one of many examples of such public statements, in some of which Mr. Kahl references his personal sources inside of active interagenc­y deliberati­ons, the setting and conclusion­s of which were of course classified.

Ultimately, it’s up to the National Security Council, as the original classifica­tion authority, to determine what is classified and what is not — but it is very difficult to argue that the contents of these meetings and their conclusion­s were not classified. There are two potential breaches here: the original leaking of the informatio­n to the press and to Mr. Kahl, then his public confirmati­on of it.

Certainly those who spilled the informatio­n should be held responsibl­e if they can be identified — but they did not go on the record with their revelation­s, and they are not being nominated to one of our nation’s most sensitive national security positions. The re-emergence of these tweets drives serious questions with significan­t national security implicatio­ns. For example, before Mr. Kahl was nominated, did the career staff at the NSC who are charged with reviewing the public statements of former senior NSC and White House officials, examine his public statements on social media? Have they been asked to do so now?

In addition, questions for the Federal Bureau of Investigat­ion, which is responsibl­e for reviewing the background­s of presidenti­al nominees, are whether they were aware of these tweets? Or were they missed in his background investigat­ion? The NSC and FBI should not only conduct a full review of all of Mr. Kahl’s writings, speeches and public statements to review for other damaging revelation­s of sensitive informatio­n before the Senate takes any further step on this nomination, but they should also consider institutin­g more rigorous social media checks for all political nominees to sensitive postings than the current practice of self-disclosure. This must apply to nominees of both parties.

As for Mr. Kahl, hundreds of thousands of dedicated civil servants and military personnel hold security clearances and maintain the discipline necessary to protect state secrets. It will be incumbent on the Senate to decide if senior political appointees should be held to a different standard than a 20year civil servant.

And this is what concerns me most, as it should concern all charged with protecting classified informatio­n: If the message is sent that Mr. Kahl’s behavior is not just permitted but rewarded with one of the most senior positions in government, we could open the floodgates. Debasing the requiremen­t to protect classified materials will create a lower standard, risking untold volumes of secret materials that might be exposed for political gain.

Leaks are an unfortunat­e reality in Washington, D.C., and the White House should be on alert that if Mr. Kahl is confirmed, the next leak may be about one of their own secret national security meetings, enabled by their turning a blind eye to his past indiscreti­ons. This should not be a partisan issue as it will make all Americans less safe, and every senator who takes our national security seriously should take note before they cast their votes.

Victoria Coates is a principal member of Vi et Arte Solutions, LLC, and a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy. She served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs in the Trump administra­tion.≈


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