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Aug 19, 2017 | 13:27 GMT

5 mins read

The Eternal Struggle to Plug D.C.'s Leaks

Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
Fred Burton
Chief Security Officer, Stratfor
Information leaks have always been a part of the institutional fabric of politics and intelligence inside Washington's Beltway. The most celebrated D.C. leak case centered around "Deep Throat," Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's highly placed source who helped him uncover White House wrongdoing in an unfolding case that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The reporter and the source would meet clandestinely in parking garages in Rosslyn, Va., where Deep Throat would provide the clues that Woodward and colleague Carl Bernstein used to advance the investigation of the Watergate burglary. The details of those encounters were detailed in their Pulitzer Prize-winning book "All the President's Men," a great read full of examples of old-school tradecraft at its best.
 
Years later, it was revealed that Deep Throat was Mark Felt, at the time an associate director of the FBI. Common sense dictates that a person in Felt's position with top secret clearance would be the last one you'd suspect would illegally disclose classified information. That case acts as a good reminder to keep an open mind about just who might be behind the leaks that have plagued the current White House administration. Neither rank nor organization make a person immune from such antics. 
 
When I was a special agent for the Diplomatic Security Service in the 1980s, secret reports, cables and memorandums were all typed on IBM Selectric typewriters. Ribbons from the typewriters were locked inside highly secure Mosler safes, behind doors protected by another set of S&G locks. On top of our desks were clear plastic buckets, labeled "CLASSIFIED" in big red letters. Discarded classified documents, notes and papers were kept in them — presumably after they were read. When the buckets got full, we would stuff the documents into brown paper burn bags, which would pile up around the office.
 
As the low man in the unit, one of my jobs was to take the bags to a dimly lit and fairly creepy basement, where a faceless crew, clad in blue coveralls, would toss them into a huge blast furnace. The burn room became a joke in the hallways as an assignment for those who messed up, and after a few early missteps in my career, I kind of figured that I was destined to pull a few shifts tossing bags into the fire. In hindsight, I realized that the burn system in place then included little in the way of inventory control. I could have walked out of the building every night, my briefcase crammed with secret documents on pretty much any subject you can imagine, and no one would have been the wiser. It’s a good thing I wasn't a leaker or a spy.
 
In the 1980s, leaked information from an investigative process would occasionally find its way into newspapers. After an "unauthorized disclosure" — as we termed it — occurred, the hunt would be on, and we'd use a variety of old-school gumshoe detective techniques to find the leaker. In those days before cell phones, calls into and out of the office were logged. So we'd spend hours reviewing telephone records tied to desk numbers or pay phones inside the department, scanning for outbound calls to phone numbers connected to reporters. We also used other investigatory methods, including surveillance, forensic examinations of documents and copier and fax machine trace evidence. We searched for latent fingerprints, looked for indented writing and conducted handwriting analysis. We even examined typewriter ribbons, which leave their own unique "fingerprints." It was hard work. The volume of paper and the lack of document controls made the hunt more like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. 

When Big Brother owns the digital space, everything leaves a trail.

Today, the modern-day leaker leaves a trail of breadcrumbs: digital fingerprints on computers and thumb drives that, I want to believe, makes the job of the leak-tracing investigator easier. When Big Brother owns the digital space, everything leaves a trail.
 
Technological changes aside, the psychology of the leaker remains a constant, and fascinating, subject. The reasons for their actions can run the gamut: A disgruntled employee with an ax to grind with the boss or a specific policy; revenge for a perceived slight; or an attempt to expose wrongdoing by blowing the whistle. Curiously, D.C. agencies also engage in strategic "good leaks,” or "authorized disclosures," to trusted media contacts that were sometimes even unofficially authorized from above. Those leaks provide an oblique method for an agency to spread information that would set a record straight or focus attention on a particular issue. Having "plausible deniability" for the "good leaker" was key, as was a pledge from the journalist involved not to burn the source. Many of the leaks we are seeing play out in the media today follow this motive.
 
Nuggets of information have always been a commodity in Washington, and leakers, authorized or not, know the risks. With the renewed focus on exposing leakers by the Department of Justice, which has set a special FBI task force on the case, those who engage in those leaks will hunker down, dialing back their activities until the dust settles. Then, Washington will revert to the norm, and more leaks will spring forth.

 

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