James Rosen acted like a spy, Stephen Kim like a dupe. No wonder the government investigated.

Reporting on the leak case involving James Rosen and Stephen Jin-Woo Kim has focused on the government’s surveillance of Rosen. It has largely ignored Kim’s alleged role in the story, which was probably of more concern to the government.

The Washington Post story that revived interest in the case describes Kim as “a State Department security adviser,” and most of the later stories continue with similar uninformative descriptions. Kevin Drum provided more information that helps to develop a more plausible story than that the government somehow had it in for Rosen and is persecuting him as a reporter.

Drum describes Kim as “an analyst at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who had been detailed to the State Department.” That’s different from the Washington Post’s very general description, and provides more information on why the government found Rosen’s and Kim’s actions suspicious.

All the national laboratories, the nuclear weapons laboratories in particular, have intelligence analysis groups. The technological expertise at the laboratories provides a strong basis for analyzing intelligence on developments in those areas. For example, the DOE analysis of Iraq’s famous aluminum tubes said that they couldn’t be used in centrifuges. That probably came from people at Oak Ridge who design centrifuges.

Of course, like all intelligence, the work at the national laboratories is highly classified, usually sensitive compartmented information (SCI) on top of nuclear weapons and other classifications.

It is not unusual for people from the national laboratories to be detailed to agencies in Washington where their expertise is needed. Kim’s website* describes his work at the State Department:

Senior Advisor for Intelligence to the Assistant Secretary of State, VCI: Advisor on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), North Korea, China, Russia, Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), Iran, proliferating countries, Middle East, Latin America, all international security treaties, and arms control agreements. Served as Red team lead – Deterrence Escalation Game and Review 2009 (DEGRE-09) – U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) at the U.S. Naval War College. Handled special projects for the Assistant Secretary.

This is a high-level post. VCI stands for the Bureau of Verification, Compliance, and Implementation, now called the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance. Kim would have had access to a great deal of intelligence – from open sources, satellites, and human sources.

Kim’s expertise, as given by his website, is in North Korean culture and policy, and “East Asian geopolitics, in particular the unspoken prejudices, resentments and assumptions that influence policymaking in and toward Asia.” So the materials he would have been dealing with and generating would have related more to intelligence from open and human sources than from the technical sources.

And, indeed, Rosen’s “scoop,” that North Korea was likely to respond to a UN condemnation with a nuclear test, was something that many of us could have predicted. What Rosen added to that easy prediction was that the information had come from inside North Korea.

What’s more, Pyongyang’s next nuclear detonation is but one of four planned actions the Central Intelligence Agency has learned, through sources inside North Korea, that the regime of Kim Jong-Il intends to take — but not announce — once the Security Council resolution is officially passed, likely on Friday. [my emphasis]

Other information in the story might have come from Kim, although Rosen appears to have had more than one source. The story appeared the same day that Kim received a classified report, Top Secret SCI according to the affadavit, containing that information. The government’s concern, then, was that a person with high-level access seemed to be sharing his information with a reporter and that sharing exposed a source within North Korea. A further concern would have been that a mole in Kim’s position could do great harm. The apparent degree of collusion between the two, combined with the nature of the information, made it plausible that this could be a spying operation. So it was necessary for the government to investigate.

It is not unknown for spies to act like reporters, or for reporters to function as spies. The jobs of reporter and spy are very similar: obtain information and pass it along. Rosen’s reported methods were very much like a spy’s, but more inept. That might seem to some to exempt him from examination, but inept spies are not unknown. The required training for holding security clearances like Kim’s warns against precisely the kind of behavior Rosen is said to have engaged in.

The question of what happened on Stephen Kim’s side has largely been ignored. The claim is that he was approached by Rosen to share classified information and eventually did. Kim’s defense attorney, Abbe D. Lowell, characterizes the government case:

the case against Stephen Kim seems to be based on a prosecutor’s theory that Stephen talked to someone in the media about a topic of current events and – in that one and only conversation – disclosed classified information. 

Lowell then offers up a defense that implies that Kim may have talked to the reporter (presumably Rosen), but that the “government leaks far more sensitive information [than appeared in the news article] to the media every day as part of its normal business,” and that Kim had no criminal intent. The affadavit provides quotes from Kim in which he seems to confess that he may have inadvertently released classified information.

Kim had worked for the government long enough to be well aware of the rules for handling classified information and the penalties for unauthorized sharing. Did Kim think that the information needed to get out for national security reasons that transcended the classification regulations? Were the motives more personal – a desire for recognition beyond the classified community, unhappiness with work colleagues or conditions, or a moment of weakness seized upon by Rosen, which seems to be what he said to investigators? It will be a long time before we know his motives.

Whatever Kim’s reasons, a person who would do this would be easy prey for a spy.

If the affadavit is correct, Rosen was behaving like a spy, Kim like a dupe or collaborator, and Kim released classified information. So government investigation is fully justifiable. Rosen was not charged, probably because it became clear that he was a reporter doing his job ineptly rather than a spy. Kim was charged because of his responsibilities regarding classified information. His trial is yet to come.



A tip of the hat to Kevin Drum, who pointed me to this website.

Photo from New York Times

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