There's a new front in the war on leaks. This time it's the U.S. Special Operations Command which is searching for the source of a story in the Army Times, an independent newspaper published for a military audience. The story, written by Sean Naylor, has not caused much of a public stir because it contains no news bulletins, but it is burning up the wires between the Pentagon and the Special Operations Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, with vows to track down the leaker.
The story, entitled "Closing in on Zarqawi," is, according to Pentagon officials, an extremely accurate account of special operations in Iraq which must have come from someone with access to inside information. In detail only a Pentagon reporter could love, Naylor outlines the organization of Task Force 145 – the outfit charged with tracking down Abu Musa al Zarqawi – and explains that the commander of the hunt is asking for still more troops to keep the pressure on. It even quotes from an e-mail written by the commander, Lt. Gen. Stan McChrystal.
The story won't strike the average reader as an expose, but to someone like myself, who appreciates from long experience how tough a nut the Special Operations Command is to crack, it is a wonder. To receive even the most basic of briefings on their operations in Iraq, a military officer with a Top Secret clearance still has to sign a separate nondisclosure agreement. Yet there it all is, laid out in the pages of the Army Times.
So how did it happen? First, the reporter, Sean Naylor, knows what he's writing about. He is the author of "Not A Good Day To Die," a book about Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan that contains details about special operations that the commanding general did not know until he read the book. (In fact, the major problem with Operation Anaconda was that the special operators were launching missions without informing the overall commander.)
But it takes more than a reporter who knows his stuff. It also takes a policy dispute. That is what lies at the heart of most big time leaks. Without knowing who the sources were for The New York Times' story on warrantless eavesdropping by the National Security Agency or The Washington Post's article on the CIA's secret prisons, you can be virtually certain that they were people who disagreed with the policy and wanted to expose it to the light of day. In special operations, the policy dispute revolves around the value of "direct action" – the term used by the military to describe raids aimed at capturing or killing so-called "high value targets" like Zarqawi and his top lieutenants. One school believes in pulling out all the stops to relentlessly pursue and exterminate the terrorists. The other school believes it's nothing but a game of "whack-a-mole" – as soon as you kill or capture one another pops up to take his place.
Because of what I do for a living, you won't be surprised to learn that I hope efforts to track down Naylor's or any other reporter's sources end in failure. But it's not just because I don't want anyone to be discouraged from leaking to me. I honestly believe that leaks have a moderating effect on the actions of government -- that whenever a policy gets too far out of line with standard practices someone on the inside will be outraged enough to leak it.
My favorite leak story involves the Bay of Pigs, the CIA's abortive attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in 1961. Shortly before the operation was launched, The New York Times was about to run a story that would have exposed the preparations and forced its cancellation. The Kennedy administration persuaded The Times not to run the story, and the operation went off as planned – and promptly ended in disaster. Later, President Kennedy told a senior editor for The Times the paper would have done him a favor by running the story and forcing him to cancel the operation.