On June 8th, US Attorney General Eric Holder directed two special prosecutors to investigate a recent spate of intelligence leaks. Republicans have, for some time, criticized President Obama for the poor handling of classified information. Some have even asserted that the White House deliberately leaked intelligence in order to garner some type of political gain. It has yet to be determined whether the recent security breaches are the fault of the administration or simply the irresponsible actions of a few rogue politicos and bureaucrats. What is certain, however, is that the frequency of high-profile intelligence leaks has grown over the years, posing a significant threat to national security. Several recent incidents help illustrate this trend.

In May of this year, it was reported that the CIA had foiled an Al-Qaeda plot to plant an underwear bomber on an American airliner. Soon after this story aired, it was revealed that a double agent had infiltrated Al-Qaeda and successfully uncovered and neutralized the operation. More disturbingly, certain identifying information about the agent was also leaked to the press, posing a potential threat to the agent’s anonymity.

This incident was followed by two other high-profile leaks to the New York Times. One story detailed the President’s so-called “kill list,” a term for the process that the White House uses to designate terrorists for kill or capture missions. The other Times’ story revealed the extent of US involvement in Stuxnet, a computer virus that attacked and damaged Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The Obama administration has also faced scrutiny over the amount of detail it provided through official accounts of covert missions. For example, many former special operations personnel expressed displeasure over the fact that Seal Team Six was revealed as the unit responsible for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Many within the Seal community feel that such a disclosure was unnecessary and put the lives of the unit’s members at risk.

While there have been several recent high-profile breaches, there are indications that the White House has taken this issue very seriously. Moreover, intelligence leaks are by no means exclusive to the Obama administration. In 2003, Valerie Plame was compromised by a newspaper story revealing that she was a CIA employee. Some believe that the outing was in retaliation for Joe Wilson’s (Plame’s husband) criticisms of the Bush administration’s case for justifying the Iraq war. Eventually, a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate this disclosure and Lewis Libby, a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted for perjury.

However, these incidents are hardly the end of the story. Many remember, for instance, the hundreds of thousands of intelligence reports that were disclosed by Wikileaks in 2010. This came on top of previous unauthorized disclosures of classified programs such as the NSA wiretapping initiative, the CIA’s secret prisons, and enhanced interrogation techniques. Indeed, it is shocking how many classified programs were disclosed in the years after the September 11th attacks.

Yet, there are some transparency advocates who feel that many of these breaches were both necessary and noble. In their minds, many of the leaks involved programs that were immoral, illegal, and unwise. The public simply deserved to know. Too much secrecy, these advocates say, can lead to too much power concentrated in the hands of officials and high-level bureaucrats. Furthermore, transparency may have practical benefits as well. Disclosing information ultimately means more data in the hands of more people. If ten minds are better than one, then dissemination of information will lead to more sophisticated analysis, better-informed decisions, and a more effective national security strategy.

While some of these arguments are persuasive, the United States is not about to embrace total informational freedom anytime soon. Although transparency certainly has its benefits, the overwhelming majority of policy-makers feel that keeping secrets and controlling the flow of sensitive information is necessary for national security. As such, the rampant disclosure of classified programs raises profound concerns.

The foremost of these is that although the United States has spent billions of dollars on an elaborate security framework, it routinely experiences high-profile breaches. The government has put a lot of effort into constructing sophisticated cyber systems, high-security installations, and a myriad of procedures and protocols covering the proper handling, marking, storage and disposal of classified data. Additionally, employees working with classified information must undergo a security screening process that is burdensome, intrusive, and sometimes keeps prospective employees waiting over a year before starting work.

Given the amount of money being put in, the current information security system is not performing as well as it should. However, the answer here is not to simply tighten control and raise standards. Although such measures may be necessary in some instances, the level of security is already pretty high, raising it further will simply add costs without increasing effectiveness. Even so, there are at least three other measures that should be considered to improve the system:

  1. The US government should pursue more effective prosecution of intelligence leaks, especially when the source is a high-level individual. There is a growing perception that many of the recent intelligence breaches were motivated by vendetta, politics, or ambition–not out of a sense of civic duty. In the minds of many, the perpetrators of these leaks are often top officials who, due to their connections, are simply not held to the same standards as others in the military and intelligence community.
  2. Policy-makers also need to come to terms with the fact that, in a democratic society, some secrets simply have a high-propensity to be leaked. As such, they should take steps to anticipate which information is more likely to be compromised and factor this in when implementing these programs. Moreover, there should be better contingency plans in place that can be employed immediately to limit the damage of such disclosures.
  3. Officials should also consider reducing the information, programs and personnel that reside on the classified spectrum. Over four million Americans have a security clearance of some type. The size of the spectrum has become so large that protection measures have grown both more expensive and less effective. Limiting the number of personnel and programs operating on the classified side could decrease costs and lead to some benefits that transparency can provide.

Although the American security and intelligence apparatus has done an excellent job in neutralizing terrorists and waging military operations, it should review some of its security policies. Obviously, the US government cannot be 100% transparent; the world is still a dangerous place and secrets need to be kept. However, officials should recognize that the US has spent a lot of time and money securing information that has, on multiple occasions, been brazenly leaked to the press. As a result, policy-makers should recognize the limits of what can be kept secret and what cannot, and put more effort into prosecuting those individuals who flout the rules followed by the vast majority of the national security community.