The Media Politics of Leaks

Sen. Mitch McConnell

Random Lengths News | January 11, 2006
Washington’s political hothouse maintains a good climate for propagating -- and condemning -- disclosures of classified information. This year is likely to bring a bonfire of hypocrisies.

Democrats have denounced the Bush administration for leaking the name of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame in July 2003. And they’ve cheered on the special counsel who has already snared Lewis Libby with an indictment and may also net the top White House strategist, Karl Rove.

Now Republicans are leaping to claim higher moral ground as they decry the leak of classified information about the National Security Agency’s domestic spying that surfaced on the New York Times front page in mid-December.

A leading GOP senator, Mitch McConnell, was on message at the start of 2006 as he told a nationwide TV audience: “Thank goodness the Justice Department is investigating to find out who has been endangering our national security by leaking this information so that our enemies now have a greater sense of what our techniques are in going after terrorists.”

The assertion was bogus. Whoever spilled the beans about the NSA’s domestic spying did not endanger U.S. national security any more than Daniel Ellsberg did when he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press 35 years ago. In both cases, the leaks endangered official mendacity and served the interests of democratic accountability.

But after deploring the Plame leak for so long, Democrats on Capitol Hill are not well-positioned to defend the whistle-blowing that exposed the Bush administration’s illicit use of the NSA. The Plame and NSA leaks are apt to remain on a political teeter-totter this year, with each side fervently declaring that their concerns vastly outweigh the relative trifle on the other side.

Clearly the president’s defenders are eager to divert outrage, away from the domestic snooping and toward the leaking that revealed the snooping. So, McConnell declared that “the national security was not endangered” by the Plame leak -- and he added that the probe of the NSA leak is “a much more important investigation and should go forward.”

Bush loyalists are correct that the NSA leak is of enormous importance, but not for the reasons they claim. The real scandal is the information, not the leaking of it. American citizens have a right to know about a program that fundamentally jeopardizes their civil liberties.

But more than two years of overblown horror at the release of Plame’s identity have made it easier for the Bush administration to now launch a witch-hunt -- not only against whistleblowers in government but also potentially against journalists.

True, the “outing” of Plame was a sordid act of political payback against her husband, a diplomat who had criticized the Bush administration for false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But that doesn’t mean that the shield for confidentiality of journalists’ sources ought to be lifted.

Some customary defenders of press freedom were not noticeably bothered by the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller in the Plame leak investigation; some even applauded her incarceration.

A factor was animosity that Miller earned due to her prewar record of reporting false claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as if they were highly credible.

But the precedent set by putting Miller in jail will make it more difficult to protect other journalists, who could be swept up in the new investigation. One person’s whistleblower is another’s score settler or traitor.

When prosecutors demand that journalists reveal sources, the effort to draw sharp distinctions -- between virtuous and nefarious leaks -- is fraught with subjectivity. The motivations of leakers, while important for journalists and the public to understand, should not determine whether a legal shield for confidentiality remains in place.

Ironically, efforts to drag reporters into legal proceedings are apt to let the journalistic profession off the hook. Miller’s credibility as a reporter was sinking in the aftermath of her stories that beat the drum about supposed WMDs in Iraq. Since then, Miller has been far more successful in the martyr-tinged role of jailed reporter than in the journalistic role of defending her reportorial work.

It’s very important to assess whether a journalist has been serving as a watchdog or a flunky for powerful officials. But prosecutors and judges are not the ones who should decide. Such assessments -- and their consequences -- should be journalistic and political.

Norman Solomon is the author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.

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