Leon Panetta testifies at a Senate hearing in February. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
When CIA Director Leon Panetta ebulliently thanked members of SEAL Team Six at an agency ceremony honoring participants in the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, he was not aware that the CIA's public affairs shop had allowed writer Mark Boal to attend, an associate of Panetta's said today.
A report published by the Project for Government Oversight implied that Panetta knowingly disclosed classified information to someone who was not cleared to hear it because Panetta had endorsed the project that Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow had proposed.
But the associate, who asked not to be identified because the report deals with classified information, said Panetta was not told by his staff about Boal's attendance. The associate said that the CIA's public affairs staff allowed Boal to attend with the promise that he not divulge any information provided, although he could use the ceremony for "atmospherics." At the ceremony, Panetta identified by name the unit that conducted the raid, and, apparently departing from his speech text, which had been written for him by the public affairs staff, disclosed information that the Defense Department considered in retrospect to be classified at the Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information level.
This means that classified information deemed by the CIA to be "SECRET" could be simultaneously and perhaps just as validly classified at a higher level by another government agency. One of the inherent difficulties in sorting and keeping secrets is that the government doesn't have solid and consistent standards for national security information.
Still, Boal's presence raises a question. Is it common for the CIA to allow non-cleared personnel to attend ostensibly secret agency functions?
Yes. The agency will rely upon its relationship with that person, be he or she a reporter or a writer or a consultant, and ask them to adhere to the guidelines that employees with security clearances must abide by. The agency is not supposed to do this, but it always has done this, always and forever, since the beginning of its existence. And, as is the case with Boal, the information holds. There is no indication that Boal disclosed any secret information he might have learned.
Put this in the context of the government's prosecution of leakers, though, and it seems unfair. The CIA public affairs staff has, it seems, broad permission to promote the agency's prerogatives, and that would include occasionally exposing uncleared people to situations where classified information might be shared. Whistleblowers, on the other hand, who have taken the same oath not to disclose classified information, are liable for aggressive prosecution if they share information outside the circle.
The government likes to say that it tries to treat all disclosures equally. But it does not. The size and scope of the information revealed matters. Whether the information could plausibly fall under the cover of an informal "policy explanation" privilege that the National Security Council seems to think it has — that also matters. The harm done by the disclosure matters. The pressure from Congress matters. The "message" behind the prosecution matters.
A government source said that the Pentagon's inspector general is not finished drafting its full report, and that the conclusions drawn by the one released to POGO "differ" from the one that will be sent to Congress.
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