Obama’s necessary war on leaks

Justin Paulette Fellow, Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs
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Barack Obama campaigned as a fierce critic of Bush’s secret government programs and a champion of whistle-blowers. He promised a new age of government transparency and presidential accountability. Yet barely midway through his tenure, Obama has prosecuted more whistle-blowing leakers than all former presidents combined. Only three such cases existed prior to Obama’s assumption of executive authority, whereas this week’s 43 months prison sentence of a former F.B.I. agent who leaked details of a foiled bombing attempt in Yemen to an AP reporter will be Obama’s eighth conviction — and the harshest penalty imposed in such a case. If Obama ever gets his hands on Edward Snowden, the tally will surely increase.

George W. Bush’s administration leaked like a faucet. To the former president’s persistent dismay, leaks to the press of highly sensitive national security operations were not so much an occasional drip but a deluge. And these continually breaking scandals supplied endless red-meat for his natural detractors on the political left. The New York Times’ exposures of the NSA’s Terrorist Surveillance Program and the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, for example, broadcasted details of top-secret U.S. intelligence apparatuses and provoked persistent calls among leading Democrats and their liberal base for Bush’s impeachment (and, often, criminal indictment too).

Yet not a single conviction resulted from these post-9/11, national security leaks (although a State Department analyst was convicted of providing classified information on Iran to AIPAC). Lackadaisical investigations, when commenced, were conducted with full awareness that the procedures would not lead to anything. The reporters who received and published illegally leaked details of the NSA wiretapping program were rewarded with Pulitzer Prizes.

A striking feature of Obama’s surprisingly aggressive prosecutions is the relatively mild nature of the leaks. “[I]t’s not like they are instances of government employees leaking the location of secret nuclear sites,” observed Washington correspondent Jack Tapper. “These are classic whistle-blower cases that dealt with questionable behavior by government officials or its agents acting in the name of protecting America.”

How has it come to be that a Democrat, as Tapper queried at a White House brief, “has been so aggressively trying to stop aggressive journalism in the United States by using the Espionage Act to take whistle-blowers to court?” How is it that Obama has become a witch-hunting inquisitor, compared to the pusillanimous George W. Bush?

A former Public Affairs Director in Bush’s Justice Department recently answered the question pithily: “We would have gotten hammered for it.”  The political left is far more sensitive than the right to the plight of individual dissenters speaking truth to power and challenging the bureaucratic machinations of an oppressive government.  At least, that is, when the government is run by a Republican president. Bush surely wished to prosecute the mutinous dissenters in his bureaucracy who were seditiously undermining his policies through systemic leaks to the press. But the left would have torn him to pieces if he commenced such an unprecedented undertaking.

Obama, on the other hand, enjoys general support (or, at least, ambivalence) from the right towards such prosecutions and a remarkable silence on the part of the left. Certainly, principled liberals have decried Obama’s fledgling steps at internal housekeeping through criminal prosecutions, but most have remained quietly on the partisan sidelines.

To be sure, Obama’s zeal does not stem from an ideological opposition to leaks. Several major national security leaks during Obama’s tenure — as was also true of Bush — are almost certainly of the president’s own doing. Obama has been all too happy to feign outrage at the opportune disclosure of secret details related to the administration’s successes against America’s enemies (a la Osama bin-Laden’s killing and the Stuxnet cyber-attacks against Iran).  Rather, Obama is punishing leakers because he can.

And he is right to do so.

The government has robust procedures for whistle-blowing which elevate the sincere patriot’s concerns through channels responsible for ensuring the integrity of national security. Conversely, leaks defy the rule of law and potentially endanger the nation. Obama’s crackdown should include reporters who knowingly receive and publish classified information, though his push for a media shield law to protect journalists in precisely these situations suggests he wouldn’t (perhaps he would just express displeasure when they receive Pulitzer Prizes).

Obama can achieve a feat not even Bush  was able to manage. He can clamp down on leaks by forcefully investigating and prosecuting those who steal and illegally disseminate classified information, and that would be a major bipartisan victory for America’s long-term security.