So I’m sitting here, absolutely gobsmacked over the news that General James “Hoss” Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is under investigation by the DOJ for allegedly leaking information to a New York Times reporter about the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear reactors. Cartright would become the ninth person charged by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act. That’s a lot of prosecutions considering Obama has been in office for four years and there were only three people charged for all previous administrations, combined. As Scott Shane and Charlie Savage report, however, not all of the increase in aggressive prosecution of leaks is Obama’s doing:
But a closer look reveals a surprising conclusion: the crackdown has nothing to do with any directive from the president, even though he is now promoting his record as a political asset.
Instead, it was unplanned, resulting from several leftover investigations from the Bush administration, a proliferation of e-mail and computer audit trails that increasingly can pinpoint reporters’ sources, bipartisan support in Congress for a tougher approach, and a push by the director of national intelligence in 2009 that sharpened the system for tracking disclosures.
But the prosecuted leaks are not the only leaks in our national security. Apart from whistleblowers like Tice and Binney who were not prosecuted, some information was leaked by hackers who attacked HBGary Federal and later Stratfor. Those two hacks revealed a lot of information that was quite an embarrassment to the government and businesses. And when mainstream media talks about “the war on journalism,” they should include government’s attempts to cut WikiLeaks’ access to donations, what we learned from the HBGary Federal hack about efforts to discredit Glenn Greenwald, and what we might have learned from Project PM if the government hadn’t arrested Barrett Brown. As I think about it now, Brown’s arrest may have been one of the government’s most effective steps to stop the exposure of embarrassing information because the project pretty much fell apart after his arrest.
So we need to use a wider lens when we talk about “leaks” that goes beyond the whistleblower/leaker nomenclature for government leakers and that also considers why we have seen an increasing rate of leaks and exposures in the past seven years.
In his interview, Edward Snowden talked about how he believed in Obama and how his subsequent sense of disappointment (and betrayal?) contributed to his decision to leak documents to the media. And maybe it is as simple as that – that when we no longer trust our government to respect our rights – including a right to privacy – we will do what we have to to expose government surveillance and wrongdoing. When we have met the enemy, and he is, what else is a moral or ethical person to do? When normal whistleblower channels only tip the government so that they can try to prevent the leak, when the President issues directives about “insider threats” that would have people spying on each other and reporting each other instead of reporting government wrongdoing, what options are left?
I believe the ultimate responsibility for the leaks falls back on government for (1) engaging in so much unnecessary privacy-busting surveillance, and (2) not being upfront and clear with the public about the programs. It is the government’s secrecy and over-classification that has contributed, in large part, to the problem. The government’s secrecy, one could argue, has necessitated the leaks if democracy is to survive. National security never, however, justifies trying to smear or destroy the reputation of journalists and publishers who are shining the light on government actions by publishing documents that have been leaked to them.
At this rate, we will need a National Sieve Administration to try to plug all the leaks, because although the government’s actions may have a chilling effect on some journalists or media outlets, they will not be able to stop those whose conscience is stronger than fear of prosecution.
The tagline of this blog used to be this quote from Edward Abbey: “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” By that definition, Edward Snowden and other leakers are patriots, not traitors. Instead of prosecuting them under the Espionage Act, we should be prosecuting government officials who perjure themselves in Congressional oversight hearings or who lie to the public about government invasions of our civil liberties and privacy.
In the meantime, a new unclassified but “for official use only” CIA memo designed to cut down on leaks from within the CIA was quickly leaked to the Associated Press on Wednesday.