3 Followups on 3 'Scandals'

Searching for leakers inside an organization is one thing; dragging in reporters -- or doctors, or clergy -- is another, and usually a mistake.
More

After this item late last night.


1) Benghazi remains a tragedy but not a "scandal," as a number of clearer-thinking Republicans are noting

2) The IRS/Tea Party imbroglio also looks more like a mess, and less like a scandal, as extra details emerge.  Ben Domenech of Real Clear Politics, no fan of Obama or the Democrats, made this point about the complex stew of facts:
The scandals we are talking about in Washington today are not tied to the individual of Barack Obama. While there's still more information to be gathered and more investigations to be done, all indications are that these decisions - on the AP, on the IRS, on Benghazi - don't proceed from him. The talk of impeachment is absurd. The queries of "what did the president know and when did he know it" will probably end up finding out "just about nothing, and right around the time everyone else found out."

3) Many, many readers are unhappy with my assertion last night that the AP leak investigation is the one of these episodes that should be held against the president. Samples:

Is it your position that any government official should be able to leak any classified information to a journalist with impunity even when that leak endangers lives and compromises national security? Where are your boundaries?

And:

I don't think you're really grappling with President Obama's argument in favor of the leak investigation. His argument is straightforward: revealing national security secrets is a matter of life and death for Americans overseas. Anyone who reveals those secrets should be arrested and prosecuted as a matter of justice and deterrence. That's a solid argument, and for you to rebut Obama by talking about the lessons of history is an exercise in evasion. When Aldrich Ames exposed the names of CIA agents and sources to the Soviet Union, those agents and sources were promptly arrested and executed. It seems very likely that the wikileaks data dumps had the same result, especially since Julian Assange refused to redact any of the information. The Bradley Manning court case has been an embarrassment, but it's hard to argue that the federal government should not have moved heaven and earth to find the culprit and prosecute him.
 
I could be persuaded that AG Holder was wrong ... and that President Obama was wrong in backing him. But I am skeptical that the verdict of history is self-evidently against the president, who after all does have a responsibility to protect national security. One of the temptations that presidents should avoid is worrying about looking better in history's eyes. As you know, history is greatly influenced by journalists, who have a certain conflict of interest on issues like this. I am sure the President would rather not prevent journalists from talking to sources (in contrast to President Bush, who would have been overjoyed to send a few journalists to prison), but it's not his top priority. Should it be? You still have to do the hard work of arguing that this tactic, in this instance, was misguided.

Several people also pointed out this item, by Kevin Drum, on why the government took such a hard line in this leak case (although they've been consistently hard on leakers all along). And a university math professor said, in response to my claim that "secrets always get out," "My jaw dropped reading that, given the selection bias inherent in the claim!" (If I had said "all secrets always get out," I would have to respond Touché. My point is that every president has had to cope with "shocking" and "dangerous" releases of classified information.)

In explanation of my own hard-line tone, let me be more precise. On the "Administration's side" of the case, I recognize these points:

1) Leaks can do genuine, terrible damage -- mainly by exposing vulnerable informants and sources, in the way Kevin Drum explains. One reason I was never a fan of the Wikileaks approach is that I knew how many sources in China, in particular, were likely to be harmed by this indiscriminate info-dump.

2) Organizations can and should take reasonable steps to police themselves -- that is, to encourage their own members to observe codes of confidence, and to identify and if necessary punish those who transgress. It matters tremendously to me and other staff members of this magazine that we protect the confidence of people who share information with us. That matters in corporations; it matters in government agencies; it matters for doctors and teachers and detectives and on down a long list.

So what is my complaint?

3) There is a very long history of presidents losing all perspective about leaks, and compounding the problems the original leak through a disproportionate reaction. Jonathan Bernstein explains some of that here (thanks to AS). That is the history that I said a figure as level-headed and unflappable as Barack Obama should be aware of. Also see James Traub on this pattern in Obama's time.

3a) There is also a history of leaks usually (though not always) being less damaging than initially claimed. See: the history of The Pentagon Papers.

4) An important exception to point (2) above is that these post-leak punitive hunts are most likely to lead to trouble when they spill over to the press. The CIA giving its own members lie-detector tests or intercepting their mail to see who's disloyal is one thing -- and generally a proper thing, in my view. Same for a police department, a military unit, or within reason a company.

It is something else to force reporters to testify (or go to jail if they refuse), or to seize records of their phone calls or meetings. Let's leave aside the First Amendment issues: the complications are similar to those involved in forcing clergy members to talk about their parishoners, or doctors about their patients, or attorneys about their clients, or husbands about their wives, and parents about their children. The CIA investigating its own is straightforward. Dragging in the press is different and has very rarely turned out well. That is the reality that I expected a leader with Obama's Niebuhrian awareness of tragic possibilities to be guided by.

I think this is it for me on this theme. I hope the first two faux-scandals peter out, and that the issues of secrecy and disclosure in the era of long twilight war get more serious examination.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.


Elsewhere on the web

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In