On the same day that President Obama met with lawmakers and White House counsel Kate Ruemmler met with civil liberties groups to discuss National Security Agency reforms, the chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence (HSCI) decided to give the media a taste of what a classified Pentagon report on Edward Snowden.
HSCI Chair Mike Rogers leaked just enough details to promote fear around what files the NSA whistleblower may have taken. “This report confirms my greatest fears — Snowden’s real acts of betrayal place America’s military men and women at greater risk. Snowden’s actions are likely to have lethal consequences for our troops in the field,” Rogers said in a statement.
The committee’s ranking member, Dutch Ruppersberger, joined in and added the “breach has tipped off adversaries to US intelligence sources and methods and could ‘gravely impact’ US national security.”
These are unspecific boilerplate allegations national security agencies have historically used against any whistleblower (or leaker) despised for exposing them to public scrutiny.
As The Hill acknowledged in their posting, “Intelligence panel leaders did not provide specifics of how Snowden’s leaks could threaten US forces, or what measures terror groups have taken in response to the leaks.” But, still, media like The Hill, which repeated the statements of Rogers and Ruppersberger, mostly took their word for it. (The Hill went with the made-for-state-run-media headline “Intel panel: DOD report finds Snowden leaks helped terrorists.”)
“A committee spokeswoman said the panel could not elaborate because the report was classified.” It would have been nice to get more details from a report the congressional leaders were not authorized to disclose because it is “classified”—and unlikely to be declassified anytime soon—but that would defeat the purpose of engaging in self-serving leaks in defense of the national security state that amount to government propaganda.
This is the reflexive cry when a government agency objects to a leak—or, for that matter, a piece of investigative journalism which relied upon confidential sources.
Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation explained:
This is a tried and true tactic used by the US government made famous by Richard Nixon. Back in 1971, the Nixon administration told the US Supreme Court that if the New York Times continued to publish the Pentagon Papers it would result in “grave and immediate damage to the United States.” The man who made those arguments, Solicitor General Erwin Griswold, later wrote in the Washington Post, “I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication” of the Pentagon Papers.” He called on the public to be skeptical of “national security” claims made using secrecy.
New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson probably said it best when she flatly stated last year, “No story about details of government secrets has come near to demonstrably hurting the national security in decades and decades.”
The government tradition of being hysterical about leaks has little effect on freedom and openness unless there are members of the press to legitimize this propaganda by writing columns that suggest journalists have overstepped some kind of boundaries.
Enter Doyle McManus, columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
He wrote what he probably thought was a provocative piece likely to break new ground in the debate about Snowden. He asked, “Is he a whistleblower or traitor?” Then answered his own question, “Actually, he’s a little bit of both.” Mind-blowing.
Now, what is significant is how he willfully promoted censorship as a service to national security agencies:
As a journalist who has worked to unearth government secrets, my sympathies are normally on the side of the leaker. But Snowden is putting those instincts to the test. He and Greenwald have insisted they are disclosing only information of legitimate public interest, but it’s hard to find any careful lines on that list.
In any case, most of those disclosures, from Merkel to Al Qaeda, have nothing to do with Americans’ right to privacy. Snowden has acknowledged that his ambitions go far beyond limiting what the NSA can do at home. “I have acted at great personal risk to help the public of the world, regardless of whether that public is American, European or Asian,” he told the Guardian in June…
McManus essentially called into question whether journalist Glenn Greenwald had a right to publish stories on certain disclosures from Snowden. When highlighting the issue of clemency (possible “plea bargain), McManus wrote, “Snowden and Greenwald sound as if they are bent on more disclosures, not legal deals.” He quoted a widely shared post by Slate’s Fred Kaplan against clemency for Snowden, which I deconstructed, to point out what he thinks should not have been made public.
What he did not have the guts to do was point to The Washington Post and journalist Barton Gellman, who Snowden also provided documents. The Post editors decided to publish stories on the NSA’s role in “targeted killing” operations, “NSA interception of computer traffic outside the US,” and NSA tracking of cellphone users’ locations outside the United States.”—all based off documents McManus thinks should have been kept secret. (Stunningly, the tapping of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone is not something he considers a clear abuse of power. It is merely a “political flap” and not a “scandal.”)
McManus did not come out and say the Post should not have exercised their right to publish yet that, if one follows the argument he is promoting to its logical endpoint, is what he is suggesting. He also neglected to acknowledge that Gellman may have more documents, which will form the basis of stories he writes this year. They may even be mentioned in a forthcoming book. Nevertheless, Greenwald, not Gellman, was presented as a co-conspirator in a leak instead of a responsible journalist. And, perhaps, this is reflective of McManus’ view of Greenwald; maybe he thinks Greenwald is more of an “activist” than a professional journalist like Gellman.
Kaplan’s widely shared “case against clemency” for Snowden also criticized the fact that certain stories had been published. Except, Kaplan improperly directed criticism at Snowden when what he was really upset about was that The Washington Post had published stories exposing more than just how the NSA conducts domestic surveillance of US citizens.
In the United Kingdom, where The Guardian has been threatened with investigations and government prosecution for publishing stories on Snowden’s leaks, career journalist and former editor of The Independent in the UK, Chris Blackhurst, wrote an editorial pledging his allegiance to the security services of his country. “If the security services insist something is contrary to the public interest, and might harm their operations, who am I (despite my grounding from Watergate onwards) to disbelieve them?”
Similarly, McManus appears to be judging what national security programs and policies should be up for debate and what should not based off what he thinks government officials would say about the value of such programs or policies to national security. This is state-identified journalism. It also reinforces government secrecy, particularly the over-classification of information.
If journalists want to imply or outright accuse Snowden of jeopardizing national security, they should recognize that accusation implicates the journalists publishing stories on his leaks. Snowden believed that journalists would know best what to print and what not to print, especially because they were in a position to consult government officials and ask them what might create risk. He could not consult them if he had chosen to publish the documents himself on a personal website.
What the government considers to be a threat to national security is so wildly broad that anything in the public interest is likely to pose a threat to something the government considers of value to national security. But that is not an argument for censorship.
There is ample evidence that the United States government poses clear threats to freedom of the press, including the right to publish. Unfortunately, threats also include columnists like McManus or Kaplan who police journalism and enable government propaganda that condemns whistleblowing to the press.
Photo by Center for Strategic & International Studies, used under Creative Commons license