What 'Stop the Leaks' Hardliners Don't Realize: They Can't and Won't Ever Win

If national security journalists are neutered, secrets will flow to transparency activists and the government will have even less control.
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Many journalists are outraged that James Rosen, a Fox News correspondent, stands accused of criminal activity (though he is not being prosecuted) for soliciting classified information from government sources, something all national security reporters do. But there hasn't been the same outpouring of support for Julian Assange of Wikileaks, who has long been investigated for the same behavior: allegedly soliciting classified material from Bradley Manning, his source.

Why isn't Assange being defended as zealously?

Matt Steinglass has a persuasive theory. "What we are seeing here is basically class solidarity on the part of the mainstream press," he writes. "When the offender was just a weird foreign hacker running a blog staffed with encryption-happy radical volunteers, people who thought of themselves as regular journalists were often disdainful of the effort and ambivalent about how the government treated him. Yes, he felt the full force of the US government come down on his strange white-blonde head, had his money flows interdicted, and ended up as an international pariah, but you know, what he did was pretty shady, right? But now that it seems the US government has leveled the same charges, for the same behaviour, against someone working in the classic model of mainstream American journalism, a regular old reporter like us--well, that's another story."

Some of these journalists would defend themselves against the charge of hypocrisy by arguing that established newspapers and television networks are run by professionals who handle sensitive information more responsibly than the radicals at groups like Wikileaks. I don't want to adjudicate the truth of that belief, just to note that it's widely held. It is true that American news outlets are more deferential to government requests to delay publication, for better or worse. 

What "stop the leaks" hardliners crowd will accomplish, if they succeed in making undetected leaks to journalists difficult enough, isn't stopping government employees from revealing classified information. So long as there are public servants who believe certain information ought to be made public, or who'd benefit in some way from making it public, leaks will persist. But the method of leaking will change. Rather than passing information to a well-sourced national security journalist at a mainstream news outlet, leakers will get their nuggets to Wikileaks, or Anonymous, or another transparency-inclined group that, for better or worse, won't solicit comment from the White House or delay publication until the sensitive operation is complete.

The ahistorical notion that national security leaks can be stopped is about as realistic as thinking that the trade in marijuana can be stopped. In a free society, neither can be stopped, no matter how many dollars, man hours, and propaganda campaigns are dedicated to doing so. And politicians are prone to zealously overreact, cracking down in ways that do more harm than anything.

What's unknown is exactly how the information will out, as it usually does, come 2015 or 2019 or 2022, when a bureaucrat with a conscience correctly discerns that, whatever the law might say, he has a moral and patriotic duty to make public his era's analog to the Abu Ghraib photos; or the revelation that lawbreaking national security officials spied on millions of innocent Americans without a warrant; or the fact that officially sanctioned torture was conducted. (Or perhaps the leak will just harm a bureaucratic rival or benefit an ally or mentor.) 

You'd think a guy like President Obama would prefer a world in which revelations of that sort -- the sort that formed the basis for his critique of his predecessor and made his very presidency possible -- were filtered through the New York Times rather than anonymous Web denizens of unknown values. By targeting journalists like James Rosen and media organizations like the Associated Press, Team Obama makes it more likely that future leaks will be filtered through people who aren't moved by government appeals, the judgment of professional peers, public opinion or U.S. ethical norms. It doesn't matter if the "stop the leaks" folks believe their cause is righteous, or even if they're right that we'd be better off if all leaks could be stopped. They can't be stopped. The question is how best to minimize their costs and maximize their benefits. The answer is to discourage leaks, but to tolerate it when they filter through journalists, an approach that has served the U.S. well. Establishment types don't like that plan, not because they've dispassionately weighed its pros and cons, but because they're temperamentally and ideologically committed to the notion that things really would be better if people like them, who exercise great power, could seize even tighter control over information than they already possess.

The 1st Amendment is a check on their designs.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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