In the quest to keep my most recent column within newspapers’ 600-word limit, I inadvertently glossed over a distinction that’s particularly important to the ongoing debate over classified material. In arguing that Congress’s focus should be less on stopping disclosures and more on halting (or at least overseeing) the illegal acts being exposed, I failed to distinguish between selfless whistle-blowers and self-interested leakers. It is a significant difference that actually tells a deeply disturbing story all unto itself.
Over the last few years, whistle-blowers and whistle-blower enablers like Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and the New York Times’ James Risen (among others) have publicized corporate and governmental wrongdoing at great risk to their lives and careers. These were courageous acts of self-sacrifice on behalf of larger ideals.
At the same time, Obama administration aides have selectively leaked secret information exposing such wrongdoing (in this case, the president engaging in due-process-free executions) — but at little risk to their lives and careers (except perhaps for some momentary partisan blowback over their willingness to go to such lengths to protect their boss). These were craven acts of self-preservation aimed not at protecting ideals, but at burnishing the president’s political image. And while President Obama on Friday vehemently denied that his administration has been strategically leaking this information, the facts, to put it mildly, suggest otherwise.
What’s so revealing, of course, is the different reactions to the information. While both kinds of disclosures detail potentially illegal acts, and while the whistle-blowers’ disclosures are seen as bad news for the government (thus, blowing the “whistle”), the behavior documented in the leakers’ disclosures is somehow simultaneously accepted as savvy political imageering. Worse, while the leakers may face consequences for the act of leaking, they have come to expect no serious consequences for those committing the wrongdoing they are exposing (read: bragging about).
Think about it: Obama officials are leaking information about the secret “kill list” expecting not that such a disclosure will prompt a legislative assault on the “kill list” itself, but instead expecting that the disclosure will build public support for it. That is, they leak not to blow a whistle that attracts the critical scrutiny of law enforcement, but to blow a whistle that attracts positive attention from the news media during a political campaign.
What’s so frightening, of course, is that the leakers’ assumptions are entirely accurate. As Glenn Greenwald rightly notes, much of the leak-inspired coverage of President Obama’s drone wars is framed not in legal, constitutional or law enforcement terms, but in terms of how such behavior helps make him look “tough” in advance of the 2012 election. In that willingness to downplay the real crimes at hand, and in the Congress’s willingness to criticize only the act of disclosure rather than what’s actually being disclosed, the political system as a whole is thus encouraging even more wrongdoing by showing there are no significant consequences for the illegal acts themselves.
No doubt, whether critical information about wrongdoing comes from heroic whistle-blowers or conniving leakers, it’s a good thing when that information finally gets out. What’s not good is that the media frames its reaction around the perceived motive of the messengers — and that somehow, the media reflex today is to denigrate the heroic whistle-blower (see the disdain for Assange, for instance) and obediently comply with the political goals of the conniving leaker.
Whistle-blowers and leakers are certainly different — but in mixing up which of them are the heroes and villains, we’re creating an incentive for yet more illegality in the future.