Reagan Administration “Cavalierly” Leaked NSA Signals Intelligence — Apparently Without Informing the Agency

An NSA analyst who wrote an intelligence report on Poland selling helicopters to Nicaragua recounts how the information was leaked by the Reagan administration.

Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS/Getty Images

On Sunday, November 17, 1985, a short article appeared on page A12 of the Washington Post under the headline “Managua Said to Get Military Copters.”

The article stated that “Recently stepped-up shipments from Warsaw Pact countries to Nicaragua include at least two Polish Mi2 helicopters that can be used as gunships,” attributing this to “government officials with access to the latest intelligence reports.”

The last of the story’s seven paragraphs clarified that just one of the Polish helicopters actually was “equipped with launchers for air-to-ground rockets.”

This was about the hottest of hot political topics at the time: the battle between Nicaragua’s socialist Sandinista government and the U.S.-backed Contra brigades trying to overthrow it. While the Contras had been directly financed by the U.S. starting in 1981, the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, after several years public pressure eventually forced Congress to cut off all military aid.

Sandinista soldiers guard an electrical substation in northern Nicaragua that has been attacked by guerrilla contras. Rising to power within the Nicaraguan government in the 1980s, the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was opposed by contra military forces, who were covertly supported by the U.S. government during what was to become known as the Iran-Contra Affair. (Photo by © Shepard Sherbell/CORBIS SABA/Corbis via Getty Images)

Sandinista soldiers guard an electrical substation in northern Nicaragua that was attacked by guerrilla Contras.

Photo: Shepard Sherbell/Corbis/Getty Images

By 1985 the Reagan administration was desperate to get the spigot turned back on, and so obviously welcomed any news that a Warsaw Pact country was arming the Sandinistas.

That’s what was happening in public. Thanks to the archive of documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, we now know this was happening backstage:

When National Security Agency analyst Deborah Maklowski got into work the Monday after the Post’s article appeared, her branch chief jokingly asked her how much money she’d gotten for it.

That’s because, as Maklowski recounted in 2004 for SIDtoday, the NSA’s internal newsletter, she’d just written a report on this subject and distributed it internally. “The only change” in the Post article from her analysis, according to Maklowski, “was the lack of classification. … The Post had not seen fit to edit my text at all!” (The Intercept is publishing Maklowski’s account today alongside 261 other articles from SIDtoday.)

As Maklowski told the story, she had “been following a deal in the making between Cenzin, the Polish government entity that handled foreign military sales, and the pro-Soviet Sandinista government of Nicaragua. … When I got the specs on this one [helicopter] and saw that it would be equipped with rocket launchers, I put out a report.”

Maklowski continued: “My guess is that the White House, which was looking for anything that would help make a case with Congress for support for the Contras, just unilaterally decided to release the SIGINT [signals intelligence] to the press, without asking and without sanitization, as yet one more piece of evidence of Soviet (well, sort of) support for the Sandinistas.”

Maklowski’s supposition that the Reagan administration was the source of the leak is supported by the Post’s attribution to “government officials with access to the latest intelligence reports.”

So what are the lessons of this brief glimpse behind the NSA curtain?

First, that the Washington Post apparently believed that it was appropriate for it to be handed a government report by an official trying to push administration policy and then just publish it essentially verbatim — without telling their readers this was what they were doing. (The Post did not respond to a request for comment.)

Second, that you can always ignore it when politicians tell us how terribly, terribly wrong it is for anyone to leak classified information.

Contra Troops Training in Honduras (Photo by © Bill Gentile/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Contra troops training in Honduras.

Photo: Bill Gentile/Corbis/Getty Images
Edwin Meese, who was Reagan’s attorney general at the time of the leak of the NSA report in 1985, had earlier said that any such leaker “is betraying his country,” and reporters who make use of the information are no better.

And the Reagan administration wasn’t just talk: The year before, in 1984, it had charged Samuel Morison, a former employee of the Naval Intelligence Support Center, under the Espionage Act for giving satellite images of Soviet nuclear aircraft carriers to the magazine Jane’s Weekly. Morison was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.

But there’s no evidence Reagan’s Justice Department ever tried to track down the source of the Washington Post article, even though SIGINT is generally seen as some of the most sensitive information intelligence agencies possess. (As of 2000, 60 percent of the President’s Daily Brief was based on SIGINT, according to an NSA document, and Hillary Clinton has been condemned for possibly having emails containing SIGINT on her private email server.)

That didn’t matter. Nor did it matter that Maklowski felt, as she described it in 2004, “outrage at having a fragile SIGINT source put at risk so cavalierly.” What mattered was that powerful politicians are probably the most prolific leakers of classified documents and can do it without consequence. Consequences are for peons who release information that the government prefers not to see the light of day.

What makes the 1985 leak about the Sandinistas’ perfidy especially ridiculous is that the U.S. had, of course, previously used helicopters to attack Nicaragua. For instance, in his autobiography former CIA operations officer Duane Clarridge describes agency helicopters attacking the Nicaraguan coast in 1984.

Moreover, as the Reagan administration’s frustration with congressional restrictions grew, leading it to secretly raise funding for the Contras in the Iran-Contra affair, the Contras themselves bought arms from Poland. Oliver North reportedly found it funny to see a ship in a Polish port loaded with arms for the Contras next to one loaded with arms for the Sandinistas.

Curiously, the author of the 1985 Post story, George C. Wilson, himself played a small but vital role in the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a far more important and public-spirited leak.

After the Washington Post and New York Times received the classified U.S. history of the Vietnam War from Daniel Ellsberg, the Nixon administration went to court to try to prevent the papers from publishing it.

In a secret session, the government argued that one section of the Pentagon Papers would be especially damaging to U.S. national security: a radio transcript that supposedly proved North Vietnam had attacked U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.

According to Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee’s book “A Good Life,” “The remarkable George Wilson stunned everyone by pulling out of his back pocket a verbatim record of the intercept, in an unclassified transcript of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings.”

For her part, Maklowski appears to be retired from the NSA and, according to her website, works as a visual artist in “pastel, colored pencil, graphite and mixed media.” She did not respond to multiple requests for comment about her 1985 experience. (The Intercept is naming her because she has previously appeared in public identified as an NSA employee.) The NSA declined to comment.

As for the helicopters themselves, they are presumably long junked, but you can buy an actual cockpit dashboard from an Mi-2 for $499 on eBay.

Top photo: Ronald Reagan’s reflection in a glass shield.

Join The Conversation