Has a Leak of Classified Information Ever Led to American Deaths?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 7 2012 4:35 PM

Has an Intelligence Leak Ever Caused an American Death?

Estimating the human cost of loose lips

A group of boys plays cricket near the site of the demolished compound of Osama bin Laden
A group of boys plays cricket near the site of the demolished compound of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May. Bin Laden was killed by a secret Navy SEAL operation.

Photo by Sajjad Qayyum/AFP/Getty Images.

The Defense Department is threatening to sue former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette, whose pseudonymously published book about the killing of Osama bin Laden went on sale this week. Pentagon officials say the book, No Easy Day, reveals classified information and puts American lives at risk. Has the disclosure of classified information ever led directly to an American death?

Possibly. There have been attacks and assassinations after intelligence leaks, but the causal link is difficult to prove. Consider the killing of CIA station chief Richard Welch, gunned down in Athens, Greece, by Marxist terrorists in 1975. The Athens News had outed Welch a month before the killing, and U.S. officials suspected that disaffected former CIA agent Philip Agee was responsible for the leak. Agee had dedicated his life to identifying American intelligence agents, naming more than 200 operatives in the book Inside the Company: CIA Diary and working on the magazine CounterSpy, which had previously identified Welch as a spy when he was doing a stint in Lima, Peru. Agee, however, steadfastly denied involvement in the Welch outing, and there is evidence that Welch’s activities in Greece weren’t completely hush-hush. His Athens home had previously housed several CIA station chiefs, and the book Who’s Who in the CIA, published in East Germany in 1968, listed Welch years before Agee began outing agents. Thirty-seven years after Welch’s death, it’s still unclear exactly how his assassins came to know he was an operative.

The Welch-Agee story is just one of many difficult-to-prove cases in which a leak may have led to American deaths. During World War I, the best code-breaker in the United States was a former telegraph agent named Herbert Yardley. Under his leadership, U.S. intelligence agents deciphered communications from eight foreign governments, and shortly after the war, Yardley broke the communications code of Imperial Japan. The Hoover administration, however, viewed code-breaking as unethical—Secretary of State Henry Stimson famously remarked, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail”—and cut the program in the late 1920s. Struggling through the Great Depression without his lucrative government post, Yardley published an unauthorized memoir that humiliated and enraged Japanese officials. They completely overhauled their encryption techniques, and American intelligence was slow to recover its advantage. When U.S. agents intercepted Japanese cables on Dec. 6, 1941, it took them hours to decode messages that suggested an attack was imminent. It’s highly speculative, but some historians today wonder whether the United States would have been better prepared for the Pearl Harbor invasion if Yardley had kept his secrets.

Matt Bissonnette’s tell-all about the bin Laden operation is not the first book by a former government insider to raise the ire of intelligence officials. In the early 1970s, former CIA agent Victor Marchetti attempted to publish a memoir about his time in the agency. The CIA, however, successfully sued for the right to redact classified material from the book before publication. When The CIA: The Cult of Intelligence was released in 1974, it contained 168 redactions, which the publisher indicated with black lines. The agency also forced former agent Frank Snepp to hand over the profits of his 1977 book Decent Interval, for his failure to obtain CIA approval.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior adviser to the Romney campaign and author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.