Opinion

The Great Debate

In defense of publishing leaks

Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) wants Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald locked up for publishing the classified information leaked to him by Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old former security contractor who divulged details of the NSA’s PRISM data mining program to the Guardian and the Washington Post.

“No right is absolute. And even the press has certain restrictions,” King told Fox News’s Megyn Kelly on Wednesday, “I think it should be very targeted, very selective, and certainly a very rare exception, but in this case, when you have someone who has disclosed secrets like this and threatens to release more, then to me, yes, there has to be, there should be legal action taken against [Greenwald].”

For all King’s bluster, he knows perfectly well that the U.S. is unlikely to prosecute Greenwald. No U.S. journalist has ever been successfully prosecuted for publishing classified information. This may seem counterintuitive. If it’s against the law to leak classified information, why is it legal for journalists to publish it?

The answer lies in a carefully engineered balance between the government’s prerogative for secrecy and the press’s freedom to report the news. Many core government functions, like national defense, depend on the state’s ability to maintain control of sensitive information. Officials and contractors with security clearances take an oath to keep the secrets they are shown and they are warned that if they fail to do so, they may be prosecuted.

Journalism is constitutionally protected because it serves as a check on power of all kinds. We count on journalists to expose wrongdoing and force transparency on the institutions that affect our lives. We want to live in a world where every decision maker knows that, at least in principle, her orders could end up on the front page of tomorrow’s paper, because the mere possibility of accountability serves as a check on abuse of power. Every decision maker needs to know that if she pushes her underlings to violate their core values, she is ultimately at their mercy.

from Jack Shafer:

Edward Snowden and the selective targeting of leaks

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'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.

Sometimes leaking classified information is perfectly fine

The brewing controversy over leaks of classified information presumes that disclosures of classified information to unauthorized persons are always impermissible and undesirable. But that presumption does not correspond precisely to the reality of government operations as they are conducted in practice.

The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees said last week that they would work “to ensure that criminal and administrative measures are taken each time sensitive information is improperly disclosed.”

In fact, however, classified information is frequently disclosed at the interface between national security agencies and the news media. This is not necessarily a surreptitious or underhanded process. Rather, though it is not often discussed, it is how the system normally functions.

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