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Column: Edward Snowden and the selective targeting of leaks

U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, an analyst with a U.S. defence contractor, is seen in this still image taken fro
U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, an analyst with a U.S. defence contractor, is seen in this still image taken fro

By Jack Shafer

(Reuters) - Edward Snowden's expansive disclosures to the Guardian and the Washington Post about various National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs have only two corollaries in contemporary history; the classified cache Bradley Manning allegedly released to WikiLeaks a few years ago and Daniel Ellsberg's dissemination of the voluminous Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other newspapers in 1971.

Leakers like Snowden, Manning and Ellsberg don't merely risk being called narcissists, traitors or mental cases for having liberated state secrets for public scrutiny. They absolutely guarantee it. In the last two days, the New York Times's David Brooks, Politico's Roger Simon, the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen and others have vilified Snowden for revealing the government's aggressive spying on its own citizens, calling him self-indulgent, a loser and a narcissist.

Yet even as the insults pile up and the amateur psychoanalysis intensifies, keep in mind that Snowden's leak has more in common with the standard Washington leak than should make the likes of Brooks, Simon and Cohen comfortable. Without defending Snowden for breaking his vow to safeguard secrets, he's only done in the macro what the national security establishment does in the micro every day of the week to manage, manipulate and influence ongoing policy debates. Keeping the policy leak separate from the heretic leak is crucial to understanding how these stories play out in the press.

Secrets are sacrosanct in Washington until officials find political expediency in either declassifying them or leaking them selectively. It doesn't really matter which modern presidential administration you decide to scrutinize for this behavior, as all of them are guilty. For instance, President George W. Bush's administration declassified or leaked whole barrels of intelligence, raw and otherwise, to convince the public and Congress making war on Iraq was a good idea. Bush himself ordered the release of classified prewar intelligence about Iraq through Vice President Dick Cheney and Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to New York Times reporter Judith Miller in July 2003.

Sometimes the index finger of government has no idea of what the thumb is up to. In 2007, Vice President Cheney went directly to Bush with his complaint about what he considered to be a damaging national security leak in a column by the Washington Post's David Ignatius. "Whoever is leaking information like this to the press is doing a real disservice, Mr. President," Cheney said. Later, Bush's national security adviser paid a visit to Cheney to explain that Bush, um, had authorized him to make the leak to Ignatius.

In 2010, NBC News reporter Michael Isikoff detailed similar secrecy machinations by the Obama administration, which leaked to Bob Woodward "a wealth of eye-popping details from a highly classified briefing" to President-elect Barack Obama two days after the November 2008 election. Among the disclosures to appear in Woodward's book "Obama's Wars" were, Isikoff wrote, "the code names of previously unknown NSA programs, the existence of a clandestine paramilitary army run by the CIA in Afghanistan, and details of a secret Chinese cyberpenetration of Obama and John McCain campaign computers."

The secrets shared with Woodward were so delicate Obama transition chief John Podesta was barred from attendance at the briefing, which was conducted inside a windowless, secure room known as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or "SCIF."

Isikoff asked, quite logically, how the Obama administration could pursue a double standard in which it prosecuted mid-level bureaucrats and military officers for their leaks to the press but allowed administration officials to dispense bigger secrets to Woodward. The best answer Isikoff could find came from John Rizzo, a former CIA general counsel, who surmised that prosecutor leaks to Woodward would be damn-near impossible to prosecute if the president or the CIA director authorized them.

The political uses of official leaks never goes unnoticed by the opposing party. In 2012, as the presidential campaigns gathered speed, after the New York Times published stories about classified programs, including the "kill list," the drone program, details about the Osama bin Laden raid, and Stuxnet, all considered successes by the administration. The reports infuriated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who essentially accused the Obama White House of leaking these top secrets for political gain.

"This is not a game. This is far more important than mere politics. Laws have apparently been broken," McCain cried. To the best of my knowledge, no investigation of these alleged leaks to the press have been ordered or are active, and I have yet to hear Messrs. Brooks, Simon and Cohen describe these leakers of those details as self-indulgent, losers or narcissists. Addendum, There is a Stuxnet investigation.

Another variety of the political leak is the counter-leak or convenient declassification, designed to neutralize or stigmatize an unauthorized leaker. The National Journal's Ron Fournier, a former Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, explicitly charges the Obama administration with dispensing intelligence about the bin Laden raid to the press to "promote the president's reelection bid." He claims that virtually every unauthorized leak ends up being matched by the release of classified information or "authorized" leak. Indeed, immediately following Snowden's NSA leaks, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, is said to have claimed NSA spying helped defeat a planned attack on the New York City subway system, although that claim is disputed.

Sometimes the counter-leak is more revealing than the leak it was intended to bury. In 2012, then-national security adviser John Brennan went a tad too far counter-leaking in his attempt to nullify an Associated Press report about the foiled underwear bomber plot. In a conference call with TV news pundits, Brennan offered that the plot could never succeed because the United States had "inside control" of it, which helped expose a double-agent working for Western intelligence. Instead of being prosecuted for leaking sensitive, classified intelligence, Brennan was promoted to director of the CIA; that's the privilege of the policy leak.

Authorized leaks from the top aren't the only ones that generally go unpunished. Sometimes when policy debates get driven underground by secrecy, members of the governing elite band together and tell their story to the press. The most recent example of this banding would be the 2005 stories in the New York Times about a previous secret NSA surveillance program. The Times series by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau enraged the Bush White House, but there nobody was charged with leaking because the series portrayed itself (accurately, I would guess) as the product of intense, internal government dissent. As Risen and Lichtblau wrote, nearly "a dozen current and former officials" spoke to the paper anonymously about the program "because of their concerns about the operation's legality and oversight."

The willingness of the government to punish leakers is inversely proportional to the leakers' rank and status, which is bad news for someone so lacking in those attributes as Edward Snowden. But as the Snowden prosecution commences, we should question his selective prosecution. Let's ask, as Isikoff did of the Obama administration officials who leaked to Woodward, why Snowden is singled out for punishment when he's essentially done what the insider dissenters did when they spoke with Risen and Lichtblau in 2005 about an invasive NSA program. He deserves the same justice and the same punishment they received.

We owe Snowden a debt of gratitude for restarting—or should I say starting?—the public debate over the government's secret but "legal" intrusions into our privacy. His leaks, filtered through the Guardian and the Washington Post, give us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to place limits on our power-mad government.

(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

(Jack Shafer)

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