Barack Obama's critics on the left and right are beginning to coalesce around the idea that the White House should be punished for selectively leaking flattering details about covert operations while at the same time zealously prosecuting whistleblowers who reveal less flattering secrets. This is stupid. Every leak is a good leak.
Any time a soft-brained war-lover like Sen. John McCain and an anti-war zealot (the good kind!) like Salon's Glenn Greenwald get behind the same national security program, you know something is wrong. But both men—along with many of their cohorts on the anti-Obama right and the anti-war left—are furious with the White House's apparent willingness to reveal highly classified details of Obama's drone program, the Stuxnet virus aimed at derailing Iran's nuclear program, and a multi-agency collaboration to infiltrate Al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate to the New York Times and other outlets. Not to mention the virtually unfettered access the CIA and Pentagon—with White House approval—gave to filmmakers researching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The resulting stories all shared a tendency to make Obama look heroic and commanding. And none of them would have been possible without the explicit cooperation of extremely high-level officials in the intelligence community. David Sanger's Times story on the development of Stuxnet, for instance, features direct quotes from both Obama and Joe Biden in White House situation room conferences—the kind of places where loose-lipped bureaucrats aren't allowed. And after Sanger informed intelligence officials of what he planned to report about Stuxnet, no one in the White House or anywhere else asked him not to.
McCain is ticked off about this for obvious reasons—it's a good political club to wield, and it returns to the GOP a little bit of their traditional high ground on national security. "Sure, they killed bin Laden, but these Democrats are reckless and chatty and don't understand how to handle classified information and are willing to sell out our intelligence agents for some good press. We have man-sized safes."
Greenwald is ticked off—rightly—because Obama's Justice Department has launched an unprecedented war on leakers big and small, going after everyone from massive Wikileaker Bradley Manning to the relatively harmless Shamai Leibowitz, an FBI translator who leaked wiretap transcripts to a blogger:
[W]hat is completely intolerable is to allow this glaring double standard to continue. The prevailing rules under this administration are definitively corrupt: if you leak to expose government corruption and in the process embarrass political officials, then you are severely punished (whistleblowers); but if you leak to glorify the President and his highest-level advisers, then you are protected and rewarded (senior Obama officials).
Where he errs is in joining McCain to endorse a criminal investigation into the leaks. Greenwald acknowledges that the Times' recent national security reporting involve "clear matters of public concern" [that] should not be shrouded in secrecy." But still, what's good for the goose is good for the gander: "[T]he best (or only) way to put an end to unjust legal practices is to subject the most powerful elites to those laws on equal terms with everyone else."
Look: White House power thrives on secrecy and control over information. It always has. All regimes promote politically advantageous information and punish the release of information that threatens their power. The intelligence community is shot through with professional liars and criminals who use the classification canard to hide their illegal torture and wiretapping programs. In this environment, all data is good data. Every scrap of information we can get about our secret CIA-run wars—for any reason, under any circumstances—helps inform democratic decision-making. It's crucial to nest those disclosures in context—whether they are part of an apparent propaganda effort, whether they are lies designed to distract from inconvenient truths—but the more light shed in those dark corners, the better.
We should be happy that the White House is authorizing these disclosures. Skeptical and happy. We should encourage all leaks, deliberate or otherwise. When they appear to be deliberately engineered, we should interrogate them, vet them, sniff out inconsistencies and errors—but we should be glad for the opportunity to do so. The correct answer to the White House's brazen hypocrisy is to stop the leak investigations and prosecutions that already exist, not to endorse new witch hunts. All that would accomplish is an even more determined clampdown by the White House on classified information, making it even less likely that we will come to understand what limited scraps of information about our illegal wars are made available to us.
For his part, at a news conference today Obama rejected the charge that he has been feeding flattering information to reporters: "The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive — it's wrong.... Since I've been in office, my attitude has been zero tolerance for these kinds of leaks and speculation. We have mechanisms in place where if we can root out folks who have leaked they will suffer consequences. In some cases, it's criminal — these are criminal acts when they release information like this. And we will conduct thorough investigations, as we have in the past."
Right-thinking war-haters everywhere should reject that view, and oppose those investigations. They will lead only to more secrets and less understanding of our worst crimes.
Image by Jim Cooke.