Bradley Manning and leaks to news media: Is US pursuit too hot? (+video)
Bradley Manning's mass disclosures to WikiLeaks 'triggered an intense reaction' inside the Obama administration to squelch future leaks to journalists – and to hunt down leakers, experts say. That reaction, in turn, is stirring debate about the right balance between secrecy and transparency.
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“It’s just a good example of the Obama administration trying to use every club at its disposal,” says Ellen Shearer of the National Security Journalism Initiative at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, near Chicago. “For journalists, it’s overreach – using the law in a way I don’t think it was intended to be used.”Skip to next paragraph
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Too many secret documents
The rise in leak prosecutions is also related to the problem of “overclassification” – documents that are routinely classified but should not be, Mr. Schoenfeld and others say.
In 2010, the Obama administration classified 77 million documents – a 44 percent increase over the previous year, according to “Fighting for the Press,” an insider’s look at the leak of the Pentagon Papers by James Goodale, a leading First Amendment lawyer. The book notes, too, that 4 million government employees and contractors have clearance to access those classified documents.
“What we are seeing in the Obama administration prosecutions is a vigorous attempt to defend a system of classification that hasn’t been rethought since the cold war,” says Dr. Lewis at CSIS. “We have brought into the 21st century a system designed to fight the Soviet Union.”
A recent example of overclassification, Lewis says, is Presidential Policy Directive-20, or PPD-20, a top-secret document leaked to newspapers in June. The document, signed by Mr. Obama last fall, directs that cyberweapons be developed that can be unleashed with “little or no warning” against enemies worldwide.
“There wasn’t much in that document that really needed to be secret,” Lewis says. “So someone leaked PPD-20. But frankly it should have been out there for the public with maybe just a couple of [para]graphs cut.”
Leaks ‘endanger lives’
The Obama administration casts its pursuit of leakers of national security secrets as a bid to save lives – and it shows no sign of letting up its prosecutions of leaks to the press.
“Leaks related to national security can put people at risk,” Obama said at a May 16 press conference. “So I make no apologies, and I don’t think the American people would expect me as commander in chief not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed.”
But some also see in Obama’s tough stance an attempt to insulate himself from accusations of being weak on national security, especially given the vicious political climate in Washington.
“I think the Obama administration is intent on protecting its flank on national security grounds and, when it can do so in small ways, it will do it – including prosecuting leaks hard,” says a former intelligence official speaking on background. “It doesn’t want to be criticized by the Republican Party for being soft on leaks.”
Others put it more benignly.
“There was some criticism of the Justice Department in the [Fox News] Rosen case,” Aftergood says. “But there’s still nobody in Congress telling the administration they should ease up. So politics have favored the aggressive response.”
Whistle-blower advocates say leaks that harm national security should be prosecuted. But they question why Espionage Act indictments are being brought over routine leaks to reporters that do not really imperil national security – as in the cases of Drake, Mr. Kim, and others.
Others say it's hard to know how such espionage prosecutions of leakers – and monitoring of reporters – will affect the news media's ability to report.
“The Snowden and Manning cases show that technology allows for massive disclosures and indiscriminate disclosures, which are new things,” Schoenfeld says. “But we’ve got other types of leakers, too. And when you’ve got this large number of leakers all being pursued by the Justice Department, well, it means we’re in uncharted waters.”