Opinion

Jack Shafer

Edward Snowden and the selective targeting of leaks

By Jack Shafer
June 11, 2013

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.

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 prosecuting 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, 9:24 p.m.: 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.

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At the top of my reading pile: “Fire James Clapper,” by @fmkaplan. Send your reading list to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Drink deep from my Twitter feed or not at all. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

Comments
17 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Love your stuff Jack, but have kind of a factual issue with one part of this one.

When Brennan discussed having operational control of the bomber in the AP story, it was because the AP story had already blown the op, and by noting that CIA had the bomb had made it only too clear to AQAP that the bomb holder was a double agent. That horse had already left the barn.

So Brennan was authorized to declassify that information in order to shoot down the story’s implication that the Admin had lied about there being “no AQ ops in progress” for political reasons, when the actual reason for that statement was operational security. That is the reason for many counter-leaks, to point out that the original leak got the story either wrong or was otherwise incomplete.

As well, to the best of my knowledge, the administration has aggressively investigated the Stuxnet leak despite the fact that it looked good for the President, precisely because it blew opsec on a continuing operation.

Posted by sphillips | Report as abusive
 

However, since the NSA is part of the executive branch, they report to the President. The President, therefore, sets policy and can classify/declassify documents as he sees fit. If he decides information should be released to the public, then it can’t be an illegal act.

Snowden had no such executive authority to justify his release of state secrets.

Posted by rrrun | Report as abusive
 

I don’t agree that there is an equivalency in the “authorized” leaks from top government officials, as unsavory as they might be, and the Snowden type–setting aside the “macro” scale of the latter.

Even if for political ends, I would expect that in most, if not all, cases, high level government officials know the context of the material they are disseminating. They may even have discussed with others the impact of releasing the data. When President Bush declassified intelligence that bolstered his case for UN approval of invading Iraq, there was a deliberate balancing that the value of getting that approval outweighed the harm of releasing the information. Whether in retrospect that was the right decision is beside the point here. The larger issue is that it was vetted, not just random.

My concern is that the lone wolves who decide on their own what is in the “national interest” may have neither the expertise nor the context for making their play to leak. To be sure, in a few cases perhaps they are doing the right thing. But to essentially create a climate where individuals, who either don’t like some policy or action or, even worse, selfishly want to make themselves look important by leaking classified information, feel empowered to do so is fraught with negative consequences for our long term interests.

Posted by BenMC | Report as abusive
 

In light of the prior leaks, Snowden’s ought not to come as any kind of surprise. You only need to look at the FISA law and other outgrowths of the so-called “Patriot ACt” – which Obama vowed not to renew but did – and you will know that the goverment under the guise of “national security” has complete access.

The revelations, in my so far estinate, don’t match the mass of deceit and lying and war crimes that Manning’s dump to Wikileaks did. What was in the Petagon Papers anyone with some acquintance how modern governments work and how they provide themselves with legal coverage while committing their war and other crimes could have predicted – i know i did when I wrote my Committee Hearing that imagined just a possibility. In this play, which I dropped as soon as Peter Weiss told me he was working on a Vietnam play – the time is 1966 – I have some weathermen typed take hostage the likes of dean rusk, macnamara – and conduct a t.v. trial using… pentagon pagers like documentation.

Here I especially detested David Brooks’ take on Snowden. It shows Brooks to be a stupid elitist who doesn’t know how amart it is to drop out of mostly stupefying US highschools, and then drool in his gruesome sociologeese about the state of the younger generation. What a dreadful excuse for a conservative that man is.

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive
 

This is a must-read post. A lot of people don’t realize how the government uses selective leaks and counter-leaks to steer the public debate. Expect the administration to declassify more tidbits that seem to support their case for blanket surveillance. What we need is full disclosure. The argument that publicly circumscribing the NSA’s authority to spy on us would create an unacceptable security risk is not persuasive. Previous generations faced much greater threats than a ragtag bunch on religious zealots without sacrificing their democratic principles.

Posted by bmull | Report as abusive
 

Excellent piece.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive
 

The three notable leakers all either worked for the government or for a major government contractor. It never involved espionage or spooks from abroad. The government was incompetent and should prosecute itself.

Posted by amibovvered | Report as abusive
 

Misdirection. The issue is not whether punishment for leaking is equally applied. The issue of the day is whether this surveillance state is wrong or right, alternatively constitutional or not.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive
 

A nobody, planted by the administration to help dismantle the NSA and FISA. I don’t look for the administration to go after him very hard. Why would Obama not just throw the case, like DOMA? This accomplishes two things for Obama: It ensures repeal-without-congress, and it buys Obama cover if we’re attacked again by terrorists. He can just claim… “Hey I tried, but you heard the court.” It seems obvious, no?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive
 

This was a great article. Thanks.

However, as to this bit – “[h]is 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” – this will never happen. Think about it: our “power-mad government” is exactly the entity you are (presumably) looking at to place such limits.

This is a Congress whose Senate voted 98-zip (2 abstentions) and whose House voted 420-1 for the AUMF a dozen or so years ago, and very very little has changed about this Congress. They will rant and rave and do what they can to gain politically from the events, but will do exactly nothing to rein in either the Executive’s or their own power, for why would they?

It’s fine to hope, mind, and you’re the writer, but take my word for it, it will never happen. Rather, in a little while, further on down the road, there’ll be some new reveal demonstrating how nothing has changed and only gotten worse, or already was worse than known.

Still, thanks again.

Posted by Dissent_Now | Report as abusive
 

“Even if for political ends, I would expect that in most, if not all, cases, high level government officials know the context of the material they are disseminating. They may even have discussed with others the impact of releasing the data. ”

And we know this because?????????

“When President Bush declassified intelligence that bolstered his case for UN approval of invading Iraq, there was a deliberate balancing that the value of getting that approval outweighed the harm of releasing the information. Whether in retrospect that was the right decision is beside the point here. The larger issue is that it was vetted, not just random.”

I’d like to see proof that it was vetted; there is nothing in the history of that administration to assume that it had an iota of responsibility.

Also, I would say that the larger issue is that the war was fraudulent. The leaking of partial (and probably partially fraudulent) information was to support his fraudulent war

Posted by Barry_D | Report as abusive
 

He might have a case for leaking information about an operation that violated the 4th. Amendment. That would be exposing a criminal act.

However, when he started leaking information about foreign intelligence operations, it’s a different story.

He went from being a possible heroic whistle blower, to traitor.

Posted by Erikkc | Report as abusive
 

Sorry some of you are missing the point, there is no 4th amendment violation as this piece point out. So snowden is blowing smoke, and then he outs a foreign Intel program , so now he gets the full traitor status. So congrats on any foreign nation given him sanctuary, you will get burned since the US still controls the Internet.

ALSO:
Since the US is in a state of War , the president as CinC can order increased domestic surveillance to counter infiltrators. REF: See Lincoln, Wilson, FDR acts during wartime.

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive
 

This is the best, most concise, non-bias, non-reactionary, non-emotional editorial I’ve read so far. Thank you. Well-written and a must read!

Posted by melissaswebster | Report as abusive
 

VultureTX

If these government programs do not violate the 4th amendment violation why is it that the government keep blocking the courts from taking a look at it and deciding on whether this is truly the case? Oh that’s right… because that would put national security at risk…. and how do we know this? well duh… the government says so. If you don’t understand this then it seems it is you who is missing the point.

Shafer, really, really great column.

Posted by ochun005 | Report as abusive
 

hate that I can’t edit… meant to say: If these government programs do not violate the 4th amendment, why is it that the government keeps blocking the courts from taking a look at them and deciding whether that is truly the case?… :S

Posted by ochun005 | Report as abusive
 

i just registered on this site just to say, THANK YOU Mr. Shafer. Pitch perfect, exposes the hypocrisy of “the amateur psychoanalysts” (!) and government leakers, a much-needed and rarely mentioned perspective btw, you won’t find better on a msm site. To those who consider him a traitor, i truly feel sorry for you. Unless you’re paid hacks. Pathetic, either way.

Posted by cj1971 | Report as abusive
 

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