In the wake of the Washington Post's story on the CIA's secret detention facilities, it appears that we may see another high profile leak investigation. The CIA has requested that DOJ investigate the matter and pursue criminal charges for the release of classified information. Likewise (also mentioned in the NYT story) several top House and Senate Republicans have called for a joint Intelligence Committee investigation into the leak. Already several reports are drawing comparisons to the Judy Miller story (see Howard Kurtz's 11/14 column). I think this story would provide an excellent contrast to the Miller story.
The problem with Judy Miller's effort to hide behind press secrecy protection is that the facts of her case flew in the face of the intent of such protections. The idea is to protect whistle blowers and encourage them to bring to light topics, otherwise hidden from the public, that may be critical to the public discourse and democratic oversight of government actions. Judy Miller exposed details meant to crucify one such whistle blower, details that were otherwise irrelevant to the public discourse. Nor was it a simple or direct impeachment of Joe Wilson's credibility or an attack on the substance of his reports. The Plame story was simply an effort create insinuations about Wilson's qualifications and generally besmirch his reputation and possibly (depending on what you're willing to believe about Libby and Rove) to exact revenge by ruining Plame's career. Hardly a lofty testament to the value of an independent press.
The Post's CIA detainee story, by contrast, contained exactly the sort of critical information that the public deserves to see, and should be given every available legal protection. This is not to say that there should be no oversight of how classified information is exposed or that press organizations should not exercise caution in disclosing it (as the Post did in refusing to name the countries where the detainment centers are located). This was information that the public did not know and had no reason to suspect about government policies that go directly to the heart of what our values are and how we conduct ourselves.
This will admittedly cause difficulties for the CIA in its effort to continue to pursue these policies, difficulties that the CIA can claim impair its mission and endanger national security, but these difficulties arise from the outrageousness of the conduct itself. I fail to see how the exposure of this information will in any way impact on the actions of Al Qaeda relative to the CIA, nor the actions of the CIA relative to Al Qaeda, except to the extent that this is now propaganda for Al Qaeda and a source of domestic and international political problems for the CIA. This is not the case of an agent or undercover program that, once exposed, can no longer no long serve the assigned mission. Secrecy is not critical to the function of a prison camp. The exposure of these policies hurt the U.S. and the CIA not because it imposes functional problems, but because the policies are stupid.
The only reason they were likely secret in the first place was probably to avoid political fallout, in both the U.S. and the host countries. That is not, to my mind, a valid reason for government secrecy. If a democratic country allows its government to conceal its actions because the public would not like those actions, something has gone seriously wrong. If some investigation does arise from this leak, I certainly hope that a critical element of that investigation is to discover why exactly the public did not know about these facilities prior to the leak and to inquire into the validity of the profferred justifications for concealing the facilities.