Probing Obama’s secrecy games

Will high-level Obama officials who leak for political gain be punished on equal terms with actual whistleblowers?

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Probing Obama's secrecy gamesThis photo provided by the White House shows President Barack Obama meeting with his national security team. (AP/Pete Souza)

(updated below – Update II)

Over the past several months, including just last week, I’ve written numerous times about the two glaring contradictions that drive the Obama administration’s manipulative game-playing with its secrecy powers: (1) at the very same time that they wage an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, they themselves continuously leak national security secrets exclusively designed to glorify Obama purely for political gain; and (2) at the very same time they insist to federal courts that these programs are too secret even to confirm or deny their existence (thereby shielding them from judicial review or basic disclosure), they run around publicly boasting about their actions. Just over the past month alone, they have done precisely this by leaking key details about Obama’s commanding role in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, drone attacks that have killed allegedly key Al Qaeda figures, sophisticated cyber-attacks on Iran’s nuclear program, and the selection of targets for Obama “kill list”: all programs that are classified and which the White House has insisted cannot be subjected to judicial review or any form of public scrutiny.

Official Washington is now noticing this systematic abuse, and they are at least making noises that they intend to do something about it. The two top members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrat Carl Levin and Republican John McCain, announced Senate hearings to investigate these high-level leaks. Democrat Dianne Feinstein, Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, pronounced herself ”deeply disturbed by the continuing leaks,” (somewhat ironically) described a “classified letter” she sent Obama objecting to classified disclosures, and said she spoke to Levin “about the possibility of a joint hearing to investigate these leaks.” McCain accused the administration, with good reason, of leaking with the intent to “enhance President Obama’s image as a tough guy for the elections” and said the high-level leaks are a concerted “attempt to further the president’s political ambitions for the sake of his re-election at the expense of our national security”; McCain also called for the appointment of a Special Prosecutor, making this important argument:

He noted the “unacceptable” incongruity of prosecuting lower-level personnel such as Bradley ManningJeffrey Sterling or John Kiriakou for allegedly leaking classified information while holding senior officials blameless for what appear to be comparable offenses.

The fact that this administration would aggressively pursue leaks perpetrated by a 22-year-old Army private in the Wikileaks matter and former CIA employees in other leaks cases but apparently sanction leaks made by senior administration officials for political purposes is simply unacceptable,” Sen. McCain said.

It is indeed. But that’s how Washington justice, by definition, always works. Marginalized Muslims are imprisoned for decades for the most minimal contacts with designated Terrorist organizations, while high-powered D.C. officials openly receive large sums of money and become enthusiastic influence-peddlers and advocates for a Terror group with total impunity. Lynndie England is prosecuted and imprisoned for her low-level prisoner abuse, while the high-level government officials and lawyers who designed, authorized and implemented a worldwide torture regime are fully protected. Ordinary citizens who film abusive police conduct are arrested and prosecuted, while Bush officials and the nation’s telecom giants who systematically eavesdropped on Americans without the warrants required by law are immunized. Petty corner drug dealers and even users are imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands, while Wall Street criminals whose fraud caused a massive global economic crisis never see the inside of a courtroom, let alone a prison cell.

Here we find the same pattern of lawlessness: we have low-level whistleblowers who exposed serious government corruption and illegality — matters clearly in the public interest — prosecuted and imprisoned with unprecedented aggression by the very same administration that serially leaks far more sensitive national security secrets purely for the President’s political gain. The New York Times‘ Scott Shane has an article this morning on this controversy that includes some important facts about just how manipulative the Obama administration is with its secrecy powers:

[C]ontradictory behavior on the secrecy front has been especially striking under the Obama administration.

Mr. Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008 by denouncing his predecessor’s secret prisons and brutal interrogations, which were public knowledge only because of leaks of classified information to the news media. He began his term by pledging the most transparent administration in history.

In office, however, he has outdone all previous presidents in mounting criminal prosecutions over such leaks, overseeing six such cases to date, compared with three under all previous administrations combined. . . .

The administration’s inconsistency, however, has been particularly evident on the drone program. Officials routinely give reporters limited information on strikes, usually on the condition of anonymity. Mr. Obama spoke explicitly about the strikes in Pakistan in an online appearance in January, arguing that they were precisely aimed at Al Qaeda.

Yet the drone attacks in Pakistan are part of a C.I.A. covert action program designed to be “deniable” by American leaders; by law they are in the most carefully protected category of secrets that the government keeps. In court, the administration has taken the position that it can neither confirm nor deny the existence of such operations.

“There’s something wrong with aggressive leaking and winking and nodding about the drone program, but saying in response to Freedom of Information requests that they can’t comment because the program is covert,” [Bush DOJ official Jack] Goldsmith said.

All of these leaked Executive Branch programs — the bin Laden raid, cyber-attacks on Iran (which is an act of war under the Pentagon’s doctrine), continuous drone attacks on Pakistan and Yemen, the President’s “kill list” — are clear matters of public concern. They should not be shrouded in secrecy. So in one sense, these leaks have achieved an important public good: informing the citizenry about highly consequential covert wars and U.S. militarism that otherwise would have been shielded from public scrutiny and debate. From Shane’s article:

“The U.S. is embarked on ambitious and consequential moves that will shape the security environment for years to come, whether they succeed or fail,” said Steven Aftergood, who studies government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “Secrecy cloaks not only the operations, but their justification and rationale, which are legitimate subjects of public interest.”

Mr. Aftergood said drones and cyberattacks were “extreme examples of programs that are widely known and yet officially classified.” That, he said, has prevented informed public discussion of some critical questions. Should the United States be inaugurating a new era of cyberattacks? What are the actual levels of civilian casualties caused by the drone attacks, and what are the implications for national sovereignty?

“Keeping these programs secret may have a value,” said Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and Bush administration Justice Department official who writes about national security and the press. “But there’s another value that has to be considered, too — the benefit of transparency, accountability and public discussion.”

But all of that is equally true — in fact, more true — of the whistleblowers whom the Obama administration continues to persecute. Tom Drake exposed serious corruption and potential illegality at the NSA. Jeffrey Sterling, if he did what he’s accused of, informed the public of gross and dangerous ineptitude by the CIA in attempting to infiltrate Iran’s nuclear program. Bradley Manning, if he is the WikiLeaks leaker, single-handedly produced more journalistic scoops than any individual in the last three decades, and exposed very serious corruption and illegality by numerous regimes around the world, including the U.S. There is zero national security harm that has been identified from any of those disclosures.

What all of this reflects is the wildly excessive, anti-democratic secrecy behind which the U.S. Government operates, and the solution in the face of this growing controversy ought to be serious attempts to increase transparency and dilute the wall of secrecy. But that’s highly unlikely to happen. When people like Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain start digging their hands into these controversies, they reflexively do the opposite: they are devoted to always-increasing levels of government secrecy.

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For Security State servants like these, secrecy is the currency on which their power, influence and self-importance depends: the more government actions which they know about but which are concealed from the citizenry, the more influential and unaccountable they are. So as is usually true when bipartisan groups of self-important Senators gather in common cause, they’re certain to make the core problem worse. In response to the genuine problem of selective leak-punishment by the Executive Branch, they will not try to increase transparency but will do the opposite: attempt to plug leaks, punish whistleblowers, and fortify U.S. Government secrecy powers even beyond where they are now.

Still, whatever else is true, what 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).

This is similar to the issue of high-level Washington support for the MeK Terror group: the law itself — criminally punishing advocacy deemed to be on behalf of Terror groups — is a pernicious assault on free speech and should not be permitted; but since it is permitted, it should be applied to the marginal and the powerful alike. The same is true here: all of these leaks are in the public interest and should be permitted, not prosecuted; but since leaks by low-level government employees are harshly prosecuted when they expose serious wrongdoing, then leaks by senior Obama officials designed to politically benefit the President should be prosecuted as well. Often, the 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.

White House spokesman Jay Carney responded to these accusations of politically-motivated leaking with this denial: “Any suggestion that this administration has authorized intentional leaks of classified information for political gain is grossly irresponsible.” Oh, yes: perish the thought. Carney’s denial is implausible in the extreme.

The media accounts disclosing the Obama-glorifying national security leaks repeatedly attribute them to Obama officials: the NYT “kill list” article was based on interviews with “three dozen of his current and former advisers [who] described Mr. Obama’s evolution since taking on the role”; the NYT‘s Iran cyber-warfare article cited, among others, “American officials,” including “a senior administration official”; the same White House that insists in court that it cannot confirm the existence of the CIA’s drone program this week once again anonymously boasted of its latest drone kill in Pakistan; and we know that key White House officials met with and passed sensitive information to Hollywood filmmakers about the bin Laden raid.

Moreover, these disclosures include glorifying details only those very close to Obama could possible know (he grapples with the profound moral teachings of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Bush-era CIA official John Brennan when building his “kill lists”; “‘From his first days in office, [Obama] was deep into every step in slowing the Iranian [nuclear] program — the diplomacy, the sanctions, every major decision,’ a senior administration official said. ‘And it’s safe to say that whatever other activity might have been under way [cyber-warfare] was no exception to that rule’”). Does that not sound exactly like close Obama aides leaking national security secrets in order to venerate him as a hands-on, tough guy Commander-in-Chief?

And if these leaks weren’t authorized by the White House, then it’s highly, highly coincidental — an extraordinary stroke of serial good luck for the White House — that these leaks over and over again have the same effect: depicting Obama in the best possible political light, as a strong, bold, unflinching Commander-in-Chief. It’s just so very lucky for the White House that these leaks continuously disclose actions by Obama that make people like Andrew Sullivan gush over his Warrior Greatness and claim he’d merit elevation to Mount Rushmore if done by Bush. Given all that, it is, I suppose, theoretically possible that the leaks are not coming from the White House, but it’s very, very unlikely.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that Carney is actually telling the truth this time. That would mean that all of these leaks are unauthorized: which is another way of saying that they are illegal. Doesn’t that mean that the DOJ should immediately commence a criminal investigation to uncover the identity of and punish the “three dozen” current and former Obama advisers who furnished details about Obama’s “kill list,” and the “senior administration official” who hailed Obama’s role in the cyber-attacks on Iran, and all the other officials who have planted with newspapers highly flattering accounts of the President’s classified role in Killing America’s Enemies and Keeping Us Safe?

When those senior administration officials who glorified the President with their leaks are occupying prison cells next to Bradley Manning and Jeffrey Sterling and the other whisterblowers who exposed government wrongdoing, then you’ll know that the Obama administration genuinely views secrecy as an important security value rather than as a gross instrument of propaganda, intimidation, and unaccountability. And it’s only once those leaking senior Obama officials face decades in prison for “espionage” will the White House’s denials — and the notion of a rule of law — be remotely plausible.

* * * * *

In a horrifying suicide attack this week in Afghanistan, the Taliban first detonated a bomb at a truck stop outside a military base, killing numerous civilians, and then moments later detonated a second bomb as bystanders “had rushed in to help the bloodiest and most helpless of the victims of the first thundering explosion.” Compare that repellent tactic to this and this.

 

UPDATE: The ACLU has been suing the Obama administration to obtain basic information about Obama’s drone attacks, including how targets are chosen and what the legal basis is for this asserted power. To resist disclosure, the CIA insists that it cannot even confirm or deny the existence of a drone program lest national security be harmed. In a just-filed appellate brief, the ACLU documents the repeated, numerous public boastings by high-level Obama officials of this very program, and writes: “allowing the CIA to deny the existence of the drone program while it carries on a propagandistic campaign of officially sanctioned leaks would make a mockery of the classification system.” That’s precisely what the Obama administration is doing on multiple fronts when it comes to national security, Terrorism, and civil liberties: selective, one-way leaking for propagandistic purposes while invoking secrecy to prevent judicial review or meaningful scrutiny of its public pronouncements.

 

UPDATE II: The House is holding a hearing today to investigate whether the Obama administration provided classified information about the bin Laden raid to Hollywood filmmakers to enable them to produce a pre-election hagiographic account that glorifies the President; here’s what Jeremy Scahill reports about that hearing:


Threatening whistleblowers with decades in prison for “espionage” — while shuffling classified information to Hollywood producers to enable production of an Election Year propaganda film (about a covert action you insist to courts cannot be the subject of disclosure) — is corruption quite extreme.

Glenn Greenwald
Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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