Story Based on Leaks Stirs Up Debate About Leakers and Leakees

Far and away the most talked-about news on Technorati at the moment is a front-page Sunday story from the Washington Post, "White House Trains Efforts on Media Leaks."

Far and away the most talked-about news on Technorati at the moment is a front-page Sunday story from the Washington Post, “White House Trains Efforts on Media Leaks.”

“The Bush administration, seeking to limit leaks of classified information, has launched initiatives targeting journalists and their possible government sources,” reported the Post ‘s Dan Eggen. “The efforts include several FBI probes, a polygraph investigation inside the CIA and a warning from the Justice Department that reporters could be prosecuted under espionage laws.”

Eggen reported that dozens of employees from the CIA, the NSA and other intelligence agencies have been interviewed in recent weeks by FBI agents “investigating possible leaks that led to reports about secret CIA prisons and the NSA’s warrantless domestic surveillance program,” while numerous employees at agencies including the CIA, FBI, and Justice Department “have received letters from Justice prohibiting them from discussing even unclassified issues related to the NSA program.” “Some media watchers, lawyers and editors say that, taken together, the incidents represent perhaps the most extensive and overt campaign against leaks in a generation,” wrote Eggen, “and that they have worsened the already-tense relationship between mainstream news organizations and the White House.”

Bloggers inspired enough to take finger to keyboard over the Post story mainly fall into two camps: Those who view the initiatives targeting journalists as yet another effort by the Bush administration to curtail and contain the press, and those who view leakers (and, by extension, the leakees) as treasonous.

“While the White House continues to stonewall on the investigation of who compromised national security and released the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame to reporters, they do seem to have their knickers in a knot over other leaks,” writes scootmandubious. “We are watching a government so clothed and shrouded in secrecy that public documents that have been reclassified have been removed from the public archives. That secrecy extends to the courts.”

“The Bush Administration’s legacy is not one that they will be able to look back on proudly in years to come,” concludes the blogger. “Unless, of course, they find a way to continue to shield the story from public view.”

The Carpetbagger Report takes that point a bit further, saying that for his money “the best angle is to note the over-the-top hypocrisy.”

“The Bush gang is launching an anti-leak crusade, but only against those whose leaks are politically embarrassing. All the while, the White House looks like a sieve in its handling of secrets it wants to get into the public sphere,” the Carpetbagger writes. “The reality is, leaks work in holding administration officials accountable and keeping the public informed about decisions being made in our name. The crackdown on leaks is little more than the latest White House effort to keep their conduct shielded from public view or scrutiny.”

War and Piece argues the administration is “fighting the public’s right to know” at the expense of fighting terrorism, while John Robb worries the crackdown on transparency is “the kind of behavior that in hindsight we will point to as the root of so many of our problems.” Saying that whistleblowers are in the crosshairs, declares: “Shielding Americans from harm caused by our own government officials is not treason, but integrity. Given the dangers whistleblowers already face, some would also call it heroic.”

Meantime, Penguins on the Equator sees the news “[a]s further evidence that the Bush administration has nothing but contempt for news media and the public’s right to know what the government is doing in their name.”

But where some see an arrogant and overreaching government, others see an arrogant and overreaching press. “It is about time the White House unleashed a huge investigation to close these media leaks,” says Wade’s Inn. “I detest anyone who purposely leaks information to the press, rather it be classified or not.” Over at Common Sense Junction, Frank is glad “the hounds have been unleashed and the FBI and the CIA are going after those that think it’s political fair game to collaborate with reporters in their zeal to pass along American secrets to Osama.”

Expounding on the “treason” theme, Improbulus Maximus at the Jawa Report says the Post story is “Excellent news! It’s past time for such a crackdown, as recent leaks of classified material to the New York Times amply demonstrate.” Far from the White House having their knickers in a knot, Improbulus Maximus writes, it is the MSM whose panties are “all bunched up”: “The unauthorized release of classified materials to the press is treason. And treason has never been an American value, except that is, among certain elements of the mainstream press, who value circulation and book sales over the security of their countrymen.”

One specific member of the MSM — Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. — also takes some fire from bloggers today. Discussing the longtime tension between government and the media on national security issues, Downie said, “We do not want to inadvertently threaten human life or legitimately harm national security in our reporting.” But, he added, “it’s important … in our constitutional system that these final decisions be made by newspaper editors and not the government.” Kadnine fairly explodes over this, responding: “The Constitution of the United States of America gives newspaper editors final say over national security policy? WHERE?! SHOW ME WHERE IT SAYS THAT!”

Kadnine has a point, but Kevin Drum at Political Animal has a better one. “Let me say this flatly: Leaks are good. They are the way we hold paranoid and secretive governments accountable,” Drum writes. “Historically, leaks have virtually never harmed national security in even a minor way, despite plenty of shrill commentary to the contrary. Reporters should be allowed to print them without fear of being tossed in jail.”

Left unsaid in all of this is the irony that the Post ‘s big story in itself was based on leaks — without which the above bloggers would have had a far less intriguing issue to debate, and the public would not now know of the government’s new efforts targeting journalists and their sources.

As long as some sources are willing to keep talking, the debate will continue.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.