Over the weekend, I covered a Washington Post story reporting FBI investigators have been extensively analyzing the email accounts and phone records of current and former government officials “in a search for links to journalists.” I went on RT America yesterday to talk about the investigation into leaks and the threat it poses to press freedom.
Asked what could be the result of the investigations, I decided not to speculate whether anyone will be prosecuted or put on trial anytime soon. What I highlighted was the reality that this is a fishing expedition where the FBI is going after anyone, whether they have a warrant or probable cause, and requesting to pry into the communications of government employees that may have been responsible for leaks around cyber warfare against Iran or a CIA underwear bomb plot sting operation.
I declined to mention in my post over the weekend that there had been a 2010 investigation into Federal Drug Administration scientists who were critical of the agency’s medical review process. Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project mentioned this in her coverage of the Post story and appropriately pointed out, “If this sounds at all familiar, it’s because we saw an eerie preview of this six months ago when the New York Times revealed the FDA’s invasive surveillance on employees, reporters, and congressional staffers in an attempt to target seven scientist-whistleblowers who raised concerns about excessive radiation emitted from mammogram and colonoscopy machines.”
Such investigations into leaks and investigations going after critics are not only an obviously questionable use of government resources but are also intended to halt the free flow of information. In effect, freedom of the press is chilled as media organizations find fewer sources willing willing to go on record as an anonymous source or off the record on background. It greatly inhibits national security journalism by creating a climate where one has to rely on official government statements that may often rise to the level of propaganda. Or, it requires journalists to patiently wait for some self-serving leak from a senior official, who is willing to share details on a secret program and knows he or she will never face repercussions for speaking to media. Then, they can at least report the aspects of secret or sensitive programs that the government is okay with the public knowing.
As for that which remains unknown, those details carry the potential of spurring a long drawn-out leaks investigation by government agents followed by a prosecution where someone’s life is destroyed if the details are disclosed.