Leak investigations are inherently touchy subjects for the media. After all, they are not distant accounts of some abstract issue or coverage of someone else’s problems. They tend to be intensely personal, often criminal inquiries into the secret sauce behind what the media does. In most cases, journalists have worked hard and diligently to gather accurate information on important issues that they believe the public deserves to know. But sometimes leaks of confidential matters, no matter how noble the intent, can also jeopardize national security (exactly what that means remains inevitably, a subject for debate).
In an effort to smoke out confidential sources, the government can wield its powerful bat, citing the Espionage Act of 1917 to try to identify leakers. Factor in the self-righteousness of many in media, particularly about legal intrusions into their backyard, and you often end up with a boiling cauldron of indignation that erupts when these investigations are launched.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that some have criticized the Obama administration for its recent decision to investigate two major recent leaks. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he had appointed Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland, to oversee separate probes. One investigation will look into who leaked information to the Associated Press last month for a report on the thwarted bomb plot by Al Qaeda to attack an airliner using newly designed and far less detectable explosives in underwear. The other will investigate the source or sources for a book and article by New York Times journalist David Sanger about the role the U.S. played in cyber-warfare against Iran. The most sensitive details from Sanger’s work concerned the U.S. role alongside Israel, in creating the Stuxnet virus that significantly set back Iran’s uranium enrichment plans (and interestingly a new article came out yesterday in the Washington Post which will likely become a target as well).
But just as noteworthy is that on Friday, Reuters reported that the administration will not be investigating recent reports about various drone strikes:
Recent revelations about clandestine U.S. drone campaigns against Al Qaeda and other militants are not part of two major leak investigations being conducted by federal prosecutors, sources familiar with the inquiries said. Most detailed information on the drone wars, which were initiated by George W. Bush’s administration but expanded by President Barack Obama is highly classified, officials said.
Now the administration has ushered in a political squall by distinguishing between leaks, suggesting that only some could be criminal. Political leaders of both parties have offered up a variety of often opposing but equally damning implications about what happened, why it happened and what should happen from here. It’s rare to see Senators McCain, Cornyn, Feinstein and Levin all agree on anything these days, and yet each has called for some sort of inquiry into the leaks (although they don’t agree on exactly how that should manifest itself).
But from a media perspective, the longstanding dividing line between government attempts to make criminal examples of leakers and the media’s desire to protect sources has given way to politicization of leak investigations, with the partisan media joining political leaders in condemning the administration from both sides under the guise of principle, hypocrisy and openness of government. But there truly are competing interests here that need to be balanced and in this political environment where outrage is the coin of realm, it seems impossible to fathom that the administration is maybe, gulp, handling the leak investigations exactly the way that it should? Is there no such thing as evaluating each leak on its own without lumping them all together to frame a case for some insidious, politicized motive?
In the end, some “leaks” are far more revealing and precarious than others.
There are four basic camps of critics:
1) Prosecute all leaks. This is a position typically taken by many hawks and their media counterparts like The New York Post who seem to believe the public and press don’t need to know almost anything that is categorized as secret or even confidential. They see a litany of national security threats arising from the release of almost any classified information often citing the harm to the future effectiveness of the programs under discussion. It’s an intellectually consistent argument and yet, I believe, a dangerous one.
There are many instances from the Pentagon Papers to the warrantless wiretapping program revealed in 2005, in which the government has classified documents as top secret claiming their disclosure would jeopardize national security, only for us to learn later that the information was outdated, its collection illegal, or it was just embarrassing to the administration.
2) Declassify almost everything. I am somewhat sympathetic to the position taken recently by Denver Nicks in The Daily Beast, that more information needs to declassified but Jill Abramson of The New York Times took it a step further in Sunday’s Times saying that “[n]o story about details of government secrets has come near to demonstrably hurting the national security in decades and decades.” Huh? It doesn’t take access to classified files to recognize that the Times story on the Stuxnet virus was both a solid piece of journalism and, at the least, harmed diplomatic efforts of the United States and almost certainly impeded our ability to continue that precise sort of important sabotage (I have never found the oft mentioned increased chance of “copycat” attacks to be a particularly persuasive argument).
And what about Wikileaks? Nothing released in the millions of pages of documents “demonstrably” hurt national security? Not the sensitive details of how American anti-explosive technology operates or U.S. sources who were suddenly placed at risk of execution? And that says nothing of the debilitating impact it had on diplomatic efforts. Whether you call it “demonstrable” or not, the facts are undeniable.
3) The “Angry at Obama” left. Take Glenn Greenwald, for example, who has written extensively and passionately about leaks for Salon.com. Now that the information being leaked angers someone like him on a policy level, it is no longer simply a First Amendment freedom issue. Greenwald has adopted a laser-like focus on stopping what he sees as the administration’s “self-serving” leaks. In a recent editorial, he accused the media of being complicit in a kind of propaganda campaign directed by the government:
There is a fundamental tension between serving as adversarial watchdog over government officials and serving as the primary amplifiers of their propaganda. The US government has perfected the art of training American journalists to realize that they will be rewarded if they serve the latter role, and punished if they do not.
On the other hand, he proudly welcomed Wikileaks in May 2012:
Whatever one’s discomfort with Assange’s supposed personal flaws, that must not deter anyone from standing against what would truly be an odious indictment for the publication by WikiLeaks of critical information in the public interest. Last December in The Guardian, I argued that Bradley Manning deserves a medal, not imprisonment, if he actually did what he is alleged to have done.
Greenwald seems to suggest only he or those who agree with his worldview, are able to determine what constitutes “critical information in the public interest” and on the other hand, what is merely the amplification of administration “propaganda.”
Yes, the media must always be on the lookout for government propaganda (something the media has failed at in the past) but it becomes pure media advocacy and partisanship when the leaks are only viewed through a personal political prism. Every administration still must and should make certain decisions about what is “top secret.”
4) The “Bring Down Obama” right.
Senator McCain, for instance, did not have nearly the same indignant reaction when leaks about sensitive Iraq strategy emerged that have now been tied back to the Bush White House. Some on the right have gone as far as to suggest these recent leaks are “treasonous” (as opposed to any leaks from the Bush administration).
Others like Sean Hannity downplayed the seriousness of Valerie Plame’s covert status being exposed while claiming that these leaks are dire. It is impossible to take this politically charged criticism seriously either.
So why is the Administration taking fire from all sides? In the hyper partisan atmosphere of Washington, this administration has taken relatively hawkish positions on foreign policy and the wars abroad not that dissimilar from the Bush doctrine. Many on the left are furious about those choices while those on the right, unwilling to give the President credit they would offer to a Republican making the same choices. President Obama is stuck in the pragmatic political middle where people don’t yell as loudly, and where right and wrong is greyer then the black and white of the extremes. Both sides are using “leaks” as a code word to simply undermine Administration policies.
All leaks are not created equal. When examining each of the three leak issues separately, the virus leak, the underwear bomber and the drones, it can actually make sense for President Obama to order an investigation of the first two and not the third. The virus leak provided evidence that the United States was involved in a secret and sensitive program that most would (or should) agree was essential. Delaying Iran’s nuclear capabilities is of the utmost importance to national security and the administration must be able to make those decisions and take action surreptitiously.
Similarly, the disclosure of a double agent who helped Saudi intelligence gain access to Al-Qaeda and volunteer to take on a suicide bombing of a U.S. bound plane provides the enemy with vital information about what U.S. intelligence, knows about their active plans to attack civilians. While this is a closer call and one could argue that no investigation is really appropriate here, that disclosure, will surely lead to a re-evaluation of strategy by Al Qaeda.
On the other hand, the administration has been increasingly candid about the drone programs. It is clear that despite calling the information “classified,” the drones are U.S. planes being used to kill suspected terrorists. Both President Obama and his defense secretary have publicly acknowledged that they exist and therefore that “leak” is far less sensitive.
While this distinction may not justify leaks, nor answer questions about what the policy ought to be, it is an intellectually consistent one. The drone leaks may be self-serving but why can’t or shouldn’t the administration celebrate its successes in killing terrorists like Bin Laden, Al-Awlaki and USS Cole bomber Fahd al-Quso by drone? (I am not going to delve into the legal debate here). There is no reason why the Administration should have to hold a press conference to offer details of covert drone attacks either. Those who oppose the drone policy ought to challenge it head on rather than masking it as a condemnation of leaks.
It’s fair to ask why this administration has prosecuted far more leaks cases than previous administrations, In fact, more than any other in history. It is also fair to distinguish the journalists’ responsibility from the leakers themselves who are legally bound to keep the information secret. But it’s now nearly impossible to take any “hypocrisy” critiques of the administration seriously when a cacophony of critics are often the greatest embodiment of that word.
Leaks are serious business. They can be as devastating to national security as they are revealing and important. But when the media becomes so polluted with partisanship, it becomes nearly impossible to engage in credible and sober analysis of the real issues.