San Francisco, CA – On February 24, the Washington Post ran a prominent story on a “top-secret” State Department cable that warned of Pakistani safe-havens for militants that were allegedly putting the “US strategy in Afghanistan in jeopardy”. The cable was so secret, the Post reported, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan “sent it through CIA channels rather than the usual State Department ones”.
Yet somehow, it still ended up on the pages of one of the biggest newspapers in the United States of America.
While many might have assumed this was the work of WikiLeaks and their alleged source Bradley Manning, it wasn’t. “Several” US officials described the cable’s contents to the Post in a seemingly coordinated effort to affect Afghanistan war policy. Meanwhile, during the same week the Post article ran, Bradley Manning was arraigned on 22 charges, including “aiding the enemy”, that have him facing life in prison for also leaking State Department cables – none of which were classified as high as the cable published by the Washington Post.
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Punishing the whistleblower?
Will those “several officials” be investigated, arrested and aggressively prosecuted for leaking such highly sensitive information? And will the Justice Department open up a grand jury investigation into the Washington Post for publishing such information, as it did for WikiLeaks?
The answer is almost certainly no, and highlights the hypocrisy in the Obama administration’s current war on whistleblowers. But this is far from the only example in recent weeks; a separate incident led ABC‘s Jake Tapper to admirably confront the White House over its contradictive policy.
Two weeks ago, the White House issued multiple statements praising two prominent journalists who both recently died reporting from Syria, proclaiming their deaths were “a reminder of the incredible risks that journalists take … in order to bring the truth about what is happening in a country like Syria to those of us at home”. But as Tapper told White House press secretary Jay Carney, just as the administration was praising “aggressive journalism” overseas, its Justice Department had just finished indicting a sixth person under the Espionage Act for leaking classified information – a total higher than all of the previous presidents combined.
Former CIA agent Jon Kiriakou stands accused of leaking information to news organisations in 2008 about the torture methods used on two alleged al-Qaeda leaders and the names of the CIA agents involved. Despite the fact that torture is illegal in the United States, no one has been prosecuted for the CIA’s torture programme carried out under former President George W Bush. Yet the Justice Department decided to prosecute someone for merely alerting the press about it.
“There just seems to be disconnect here,” Tapper remarked. “You want aggressive journalism abroad; you just don’t want it in the United States.” While Carney tried to excuse the Justice Department’s Espionage Act cases by claiming they involve highly sensitive state secrets, Tapper rightly observed, “you’re suing a CIA officer for allegedly providing information in 2009 about CIA torture. Certainly that’s something that’s in the public interest of the United States”.
Unfortunately, the administration’s questionable tactics don’t end there. In a separate leak case involving another former CIA official, the Justice Department just asked an appeals court to re-instate a subpoena to force New York Times reporter James Risen to give up his sources for a chapter in his 2006 book, State of War. In it, Risen described a spectacularly bungled US intelligence mission, where a series of mishaps led to the CIA literally handing Iranian nuclear scientists blueprints to a nuclear bomb. Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling is accused of giving the story to Risen and faces years in jail, despite the clear public interest in such information.
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Bradley Manning vs the US military
The Obama administration faced an analogous CIA mishap in Iran just months ago, and they had no similar qualms when officials freely leaked classified information to explain the incident. When the CIA lost an unmanned drone over Iranian territory that ended up in government hands, several US officials continually leaked classified information to news organisations for days, explaining what happened, and describing the drone’s capabilities – despite it being “one of the more sensitive surveillance platforms in the CIA’s fleet”. So far, no arrests, let alone an investigation.
In an era of increased government secrecy, where more than 77 million documents were classified just last year, the press is forced to rely on leaks to report on most subjects touching national security and foreign policy. By leaking information supporting its own narrative, yet aggressively prosecuting those who do the same with leaks which may prove detrimental to its policies, the Obama administration is creating a one way conduit of information where the facts they like get published, and those that undercut their policies or embarrass them do not.
Whether it is Obama’s explicit intention or not, when only the government controls the information that enters the public sphere, the foreign policy decisions that result can be disastrous. Former President George W Bush’s administration famously leaked faulty classified information supporting his invasion of Iraq and kept contrary (and it turns out, truthful) intelligence out of the papers, leading to a decade-long war.
Unfortunately, we may be seeing a repeat of the same scenario right now. The top secret State Department cable leaked to the Washington Post seems intended to have a prolonging effect on the war in Afghanistan. Troops are currently set to leave the country in 2013 or 2014, yet as the Post reported, the information in the cable “could be used as ammunition by senior military officials who favour more aggressive action by the United States against the Haqqani havens in Pakistan”. Similarly, officials have also been leaking unsubstantiated classified information on Iran’s alleged renewed ties to al-Qaeda that could be used to justify a future military strike.
It’s vital the press can access information when reporting on such consequential decisions. Remember, it was also a leak – this one indisputably unauthorised – that may have helped end the Iraq War. The release of a WikiLeaks cable was one of the reasons the US was forced into the withdrawal all of its troops from Iraq at the end of last year, according to CNN. But if whistleblowers are too afraid to come forward about current events, just like with Iraq, we may not know until it is too late.
Trevor Timm is an activist and writer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Follow him on Twitter: @WLLegal