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Why Doesn’t Congress Investigate National Security Leaks by the Executive Branch?

Stop laughing, I’m serious. If Senator Feinstein and Representative Rogers, the chairs of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees respectively, want to get to the bottom of recent leaks of highly classified information from the executive branch, why don’t they conduct the investigation themselves?

Hear me out. The knee-jerk reaction to such issues is to call for the appointment of a special prosecutor, someone appointed by the Attorney General but given a guarantee of independence to conduct his or her investigation. However, even if the independence of the prosecutor is generally accepted (something that cannot be taken for granted in the highly partisan times in which we live), the criminal process is not necessarily the best mechanism for investigating the leaking of classified information.

For one thing, a prosecutor’s job is to build criminal cases, not to find out how and why leaks have occurred and how to stop them from happening again. For another, there are a lot of difficulties in conducting a successful criminal leak investigation. As recently explained by the Assistant Attorney General for the National Security Division: “One inherent difficulty in leak cases is that the investigations are focused on the pool of individuals who had access to the information, and not those to whom the information was disclosed. This is reflective of the fact that while there are certainly significant national security and law enforcement equities at play in unauthorized disclosure cases, there is also a need to recognize the serious First Amendment interests implicated whenever the media becomes involved in a criminal investigation.” Moreover, when the information in question has been widely disseminated across government agencies, it “can make identifying the source of the leak essentially impossible.”

The congressional intelligence committees have all the tools needed to investigate this matter. They have authority to compel the production of documents, testimony and other evidence in executive session and the systems and procedures to protect the secrecy of the information they gather. They have greater flexibility with regard to obtaining information from the media. Unlike a prosecutor, they don’t have to worry about fixing blame on a particular individual, satisfying all the elements of a criminal violation, or meeting the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. They also do not need to conduct a public trial that might itself jeopardize national security. In addition to assessing responsibility for prior leaks, they can focus on actions to prevent future leaks and to contain the damage that has already been done.

The obvious rejoinder to all of this is that no one would trust Congress to conduct a fair and impartial investigation of such a politically sensitive matter. But while that observation might be compelling in other circumstances, this is a special case. In the first place, the secretive nature of the intelligence committees’ work makes them less susceptible to the occupational hazard of grandstanding. In the second place, Feinstein and Rogers are widely respected, and it would be hard (not impossible, but hard) to characterize any investigation that they jointly conducted as either a witch hunt or a coverup.

And in this case, the comparison is not to a special prosecutor but to prosecutors handpicked by Attorney General Holder. As far as public confidence is concerned, Feinstein and Rogers (or should it be Rogers and Feinstein- it has more of a ring) win hands down.

Of course, if the congressional intelligence committees were to undertake this investigation, they would need an experienced investigator to lead it. Someone who the public would trust. Preferably with some experience in leak investigations. I wonder if anyone like that is available?

 

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