Earlier this month, a member of the House Intelligence Committee's staff was suspended for leaking a document that was the basis of a New York Times article. The document, a National Intelligence Estimate that was later declassified, started a political firestorm when it was reported on. Earlier this year, a CIA employee was stripped of her security clearance, after she had unauthorized contact with a reporter, and passed on information about another intelligence program.
This is one of the biggest issues when dealing with legislative oversight. By law, when the CIA is carrying out covert operations, it is required to inform Congress (usually the intelligence committees in the House and Senate). That said, this is often a two-edged sword, because the intelligence committees have in the past, had some high-profile leak scandals.
In the 1980s, Senator Patrick Leahy, who was on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was accused of a number of leaks. One of those leaks is said to have lead to the death of a source in the wake of the interception and capture of the terrorists who hijacked the Achille Lauro and killed a wheelchair-bound American. Leahy even went so far as to threaten leaks in order to dissuade the CIA from carrying out covert operations. Finally, in 1987, one of Leahy's leaks - involving the Iran-Contra affair, was traced back to him, and he was forced to step down from his post on the Intelligence Committee.
In 1995, then-Congressman Robert Torricelli leaked the identity of a CIA source in Guatemala, apparently at the behest of his then-girlfriend. This source, who was allegedly involved in human rights violations, was not harmed, but multiple CIA operations were harmed when other sources refused to cooperate for fear of being outed due to their checkered pasts.
This reflects one of the biggest problems the American intelligence community faces. The United States does not really have anything equivalent to the Official Secrets Act or the D-Notice, both of which have been used by the British government to clamp down on leaks. Not only do they have to worry about being penetrated by hostile intelligence agencies, and leaks from inside, but there is the matter of folks on Capitol Hill to consider as well. All it could take is conceivably one ticked-off Congressman or Congressional staffer to blow an operation.
While there is a lot of debate over the media's role in reporting on the intelligence programs currently in use, and the debate is important, it also has obscured a crucial fact that had to be kept in mind. It takes a leaker to give a reporter the story. And all too often, the leakers get a relative slap on the wrist when classified information goes to the media instead of a foreign power. - Harold C. Hutchison (email@example.com)