CNN's Jake Tapper: Don't Just Trust the Government, Demand Proof

A broadcaster sets forth an approach that more of his colleagues ought to follow.
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On the Hugh Hewitt radio show last week, CNN anchor Jake Tapper was asked about Edward Snowden's leaks and government claims that they've done great damage to America. Every broadcast journalist in the nation ought to read his reply. The core of it: Be skeptical, and demand evidence before believing official claims!

I've boldfaced the key parts in the relevant exchange:

Hewitt: ... wasn’t Russia greatly aided by what he did? Wasn’t China greatly aided? Weren’t all of our adversaries greatly aided by what Edward Snowden did?

Jake Tapper: Well, that’s the argument that the government makes, and it’s hard to disagree with arguments that they make, especially when they don’t have to prove evidence of what they’re saying. But obviously, knowing about ways that the U.S. is able to monitor anyone helps them avoid such monitoring, absolutely.

HH: So men and women in the field in the uniform of the United States are worse off for Snowden in their personal safety, are they not, than before he gave away the store?

JT: I haven’t seen evidence for that, what you’re saying, or against it. I can certainly understand why somebody would say it’s a possibility, but I don’t know, and he hasn’t revealed names of spies. He hasn’t revealed names of double agents. You’re just saying that there are these security apparatuses, and the U.S. government says these apparatuses keep us safe. And even if there are government bodies or panels and oversight boards that say we don’t really need bulk collection, it doesn’t really do anything. And now we’ve had two panels say that, two official U.S. government panels say that. Does the discovery of that make us less safe? I haven’t seen evidence that it does. I’m not saying that it doesn’t, but I haven’t seen any evidence.

HH: Doyle McManus, longtime Washington bureau chief of the L.A. Times once said on this show that a story that they ran made it much more likely that terrorists would alter their practices, thereby making them harder to catch, thereby increasing their danger to the United States.

JT: What story was that?

HH: It was the banking story on how we followed money. And Doyle took a lot of heat for that. And I saw him later at a reception. He said I’ll be dining out forever on that. And the question is, we don’t have to know this for sure. You and I can’t. We don’t have the clearances. But isn’t it a rational conclusion that what he gave away greatly injured the national security interests of the United States?

JT: I know that that’s what the U.S. government says. I choose to make it my job to not automatically believe what the U.S. government says just because the government says it.

HH: That is also said by, that’s also said by a lot of people outside of the government who are familiar with, perhaps have practiced in the past, the intelligence community. It’s not just the United States government. It’s pretty much everyone who’s ever had a security clearance that I know of, isn’t it?

JT: Hugh, my job is to be skeptical, skeptical of people like Edward Snowden, and skeptical of the U.S. government. I am, my job is to not take for granted when somebody says oh, this is all just a made up phony scandal or what this person did put the U.S. government at risk, and the American people at risk.

HH: So you won’t call him a traitor?

JT: No, I don’t call him a traitor. I don’t call him a whistleblower. We call him a leaker on the show. And it’s not my job. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of my job to take what the government says at face value and say this is the truth because the government says it, and the government never lies.

There have been many benefits to Snowden's leaks. It is conceivable that they've imposed significant costs on America too, but asserting that to be so is insufficient. Evidence is needed, because that's how a reality-driven society works, and also because of the many instances that the government has wildly exaggerated the harm done by that which embarrasses the people in charge of running it. 

Recall that the Pentagon Papers, the Abu Ghraib photos, the waterboarding revelations, the reports about warrantees wiretapping in the Bush years, and the WikiLeaks trove of documents were all alleged to have done grave damage to America. The harms were overblown in every case. If the U.S. government ever deserved the benefit of the doubt from its citizens, it long ago squandered that privilege. Like the boy who cried wolf, it now needs to offer proof. 

Americans who value the Snowden leaks should be open to hearing that proof, and open to hearing proof that Snowden himself hasn't been truthful about his motives. (I am, in fact, debating someone who hopes to persuade me so later today.)

As unfortunate as that would be, all the worthwhile revelations of serious abuses cannot be undone, regardless of why they came about, and the need for NSA reforms would not be substantively diminished. Openness to new evidence is prudent because much remains unknowable; but the thin innuendo on offer so far does not inspire confidence in the case against Snowden. Indeed, no evidence has yet been offered that justifies abandoning the presumption of innocence, and the abuses revealed are ample motive for patriotic whistleblowing. (Any clemency should, of course, be predicated on Snowden's story holding together.) The NSA's story already doesn't hold together in all sorts of confirmed ways, and yet there is less skepticism toward its claims in some corners of the media. 

Well, some of us are inclined towards whistleblowers and others to support the official line. The skeptical approach that Tapper counsels would be good for us all.

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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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