How Not to|Keep a Secret

     If you’re in need of some light summertime reading and don’t have a spy novel handy, I recommend an opinion from the 4th Circuit called U.S. v. Sterling.
     I’m a big fan of irony and unanswered interesting questions, and this one has it all.
     You get a hint of what’s to come when you look at the long list of amici – CNN, NBCUniversal and Fox News all on the same team! – and then you see who wrote the opinion.
     “Chief Judge Traxler wrote the opinion for the court in Part I, in which Judge Gregory and Judge Diaz joined. Chief Judge Traxler wrote the opinion for the court in Parts II-V, in which Judge Diaz joined. Judge Gregory wrote the opinion for the court in Part VI, in which Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Diaz joined. Judge Gregory wrote the opinion for the court in Part VII, in which Judge Diaz joined. Chief Judge Traxler wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part as to Part VII. Judge Gregory wrote an opinion dissenting as to Parts II-V.”
     My head was spinning before I even started reading the opinion.
     I’m as knee-jerk anti-secrecy as the next journalist (that shifty-looking guy over there), but this sort of thing can be wonderfully ironic. What you have here is the media insisting on exposing government secrets and then insisting on keeping its own secrets.
     The government can’t enforce a confidentiality agreement but a reporter can?
     The rest of the media cabal and I think the answer should be yes, but I can understand why some people (and judges) might have trouble with this.
     I’ll let you ponder the irony of this on your own. It’s the details of this case that are the fun part.
     Question One: Why?
     This is a 118-page ruling on whether a writer has to testify about his source. A zillion news organizations and their lawyers weighed in. Really – look at the list.
     Who could this mysterious source possibly be?
     There are hints.
     I should note, if you haven’t looked at the ruling, that the writer isn’t the defendant here. He’s only being called to testify. This is a criminal proceeding against a former CIA officer named Jeffrey Sterling.
     According to the ruling, the government has records of phone calls between Sterling and the writer, James Risen. The government has emails between the two, mentioning that they met. Risen wrote a book describing secret meetings in which the only common participant was Sterling. He also wrote a New York Times piece quoting Sterling.
     Hmm.
     Who could the secret source possibly be?
     Maybe I’m missing something here, but it sounds like we have a reporter insisting on not telling the government something it already knows and the government insisting that the reporter tell it something it already knows.
     It must be some sort of lawyer-employment program.
     Question Two: Quotas?
     This is from the ruling: “In August 2000, shortly after Sterling’s reassignment and after being told that he had not met performance targets, Sterling filed an equal opportunity complaint …”
     Performance targets? Spies have quotas like traffic cops?
     There may be entire countries working for the CIA.
     Question Three: What’s the best way to derail a nuclear development program?
     Risen’s book describes a “failed attempt by the CIA to have a former Russian scientist provide flawed nuclear weapon blueprints to Iran.”
     Why does this sound like the plot of a Peter Sellers movie?
     I’m casting Christopher Lloyd as the Russian scientist.
     I want to know too how this mission failed. Did the Iranians wonder what this weird Russian was doing in their country and get suspicious? Or did the scientist accidentally give them something that worked?
     I admit that I know nothing about nuclear weapons, but it strikes me that there’s another problem here. What happens when you make a mistake constructing a nuclear bomb?
     Might it not blow up?
     I think I’m glad this mission failed.

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