Esper Turns Emphasis at Pentagon to Stopping ‘Countless’ Leaks

Defense Secretary Mark Esper is pressing officials at the Pentagon to crack down more on the “countless examples of unauthorized disclosures” officials say are threatening the safety of personnel and undermining national security.

Esper, marking his first full year in office, said officials need to do a better job protecting classified data and vetting unclassified information destined for public release.

Although the Pentagon “remains committed to transparency to promote accountability and public trust,” Esper wrote in a July 20 memo addressed to Defense Department personnel, it’s “important to emphasize that unclassified information is not publicly releasable until it is approved for release by an appropriate authorizing official.”

Esper, who has sought to expand press access to top officials and has held more briefings for reporters than his predecessors in the Trump administration, raised concerns about leaks during a July 9 House Armed Services Committee hearing.

‘Unauthorized Discussions’

During his testimony, he said there was already “an investigation that is underway to go after leaks, whether it’s of classified information or unclassified information that is sensitive, and also, you know, unlawful -- unauthorized discussions with the media.” He gave no examples.

While leaks have long plagued Pentagon chiefs, and have been a particular focus of President Donald Trump’s White House, analysts said the focus on classified and unclassified data was unusual.

“He lumps together classified and unclassified information, though these are usually understood to be distinct problems that have different consequences,” Steve Aftergood, a secrecy analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, said in an email. Release of “properly classified information may pose a threat to national security. That’s not usually true of unclassified information, however sensitive it may be, or else it too would be classified.”

Long History

Asked what specific stories or topics spurred Esper’s July 9 announcement, Lieutenant Colonel Uriah Orland, a spokesman, wrote “There are countless examples of both the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, which by definition could reasonably be expected to cause significant damage to our national security and is a criminal offense, and the unauthorized disclosure of non-public information that violates DoD terms of employment.”

There is a long history of defense secretaries issuing warnings on leaks. In October 2017, then-Secretary Jim Mattis issued a memo saying that “All hands must be alert to prevent unauthorized disclosure of non-public information for any reason, whether by implied acknowledgment or intentional release. Misconduct cannot be tolerated and suspected or confirmed disclosure must be reported at once.”

Then-Secretary Leon Panetta in June 2012 instructed officials to establish a formal system for monitoring the national media. “The department is continuously improving its security posture and overall capability to prevent unauthorized disclosures,” Panetta’s Pentagon said in a statement.

Donald Rumsfeld, in a July 2002 “Snowflake memo,” wrote officials that their “leadership is needed to help stop leaks” that “we continue to see on a daily basis.”

Esper, in his memo on Monday, said his goal is to change what he called a culture of weakening operational security, or OPSEC, practices and habits. He urged personnel to “be deliberate and careful with all classified, controlled unclassified, and predecisional policy information and proposals” and “comply with DoD policies regarding public disclosures.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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