The Case for Small Government

A Libertarian Perspective on Economic and Social Policy

April 24, 2006

The CIA Leak Case

In April, 1963, having been arrested for participating in a non-violent civil rights demonstration, Martin Luther King sat in a Birmingham jail and wrote the following words to his fellow clergyman:

I hope you are able to ace [sic] the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.


King’s perspective is relevant to the case of Mary McCarthy, a CIA employee who was fired last weak for leaking information about secret overseas prisons to the Washington Post.

The CIA, like any employer, has the right to fire employees who violate the terms of their employment. And maintaining the confidentiality of classified information is presumably a reasonable condition of employment at the CIA.

Yet at times an honorable employee, at the CIA or elsewhere, might believe that conscience requires violating the conditions of employment. In this situation, what should a person do?

My advice is to take a lesson from the King quote above. Resign first; then release the classified information; and accept any legal penalty that results from these actions.

Had Mary McCarthy proceeded in this manner, people would still disagree about whether her actions serve the national interest. But far fewer would question her motivation or integrity.

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