Behold the Selective Outrage Over National-Security Leaks

By Conor Friedersdorf

Whistleblowers aren't the only ones who reveal classified information.

U.S. newspapers have recently published articles about two different national-security leaks, both of them sourced to U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. 

One story reports that the NSA's phone dragnet doesn't include information on telephone calls from Verizon Wireless and other cell phone carriers. The other story, broken by the Associated Press, reveals a debate about whether to extrajudicially kill an American.

Both stories reveal classified information. Yet almost no one is talking about finding and punishing the leakers, or disparaging their character, or suggesting that the resulting articles are anything other than national security journalism. But the articles did upset at least one man, Chris Donesa.

Writing at Lawfare, the former general counsel for the House Intelligence Committee makes the case that, if these officials aren't lying or misleading the public with their leaks, then they're revealing classified information that could help terrorists. He is "baffled" as to why people who "presumably have or had significant national security responsibilities" would participate in these news articles.

"Even putting the potential for criminal liability aside, the last thing an official should want to do is to advertise the fact that our intelligence capability is now so limited, or to explain exactly where, how, and why the collection is lacking," he says of the leak about the phone dragnet. "This is almost as bad as, say, telling the press in advance that the government is considering a drone strike against a target and describing that target in detail while still mulling over whether to do it," he added, referencing the leak about the American accused of helping al-Qaeda.

It's refreshing to read his complaint. As regular readers know, I believe that the public ought to be told about the reach of the phone dragnet as well as the presence of American citizens on a kill list. If Glenn Greenwald had written those stories based on an Edward Snowden leak, I'd have argued that the public interest in getting the facts outweighed any harm done. But what about all the people who are furious about the Snowden leaks?

Why aren't they outraged at these leaks?

They'd be calling for the head of any whistleblower who revealed details about the target of a drone strike before it occurred or tipped off terrorists about the best cell carrier to use*. The Obama Administration would try to throw the leaker in jail for years. Representative Peter King would be calling him a traitor. Edward Lucas of The Economist would be wondering whether Russian intelligence forces manipulated the leaker into revealing national-security secrets that weakened America. 

But because national-security-state insiders in good standing appear to be behind these leaks, rather than dissidents proclaiming their desire to inform the public, there is no talk of a leak investigation or Espionage Act violations. The leakers have no need to flee the country to avoid arrest or even to retain a lawyer. 

They get to leak national-security information with impunity, even though they're agenda-driven selectivity means that the secrets they've chosen to reveal aren't even leaving the public meaningfully informed about the subjects under consideration. Lots of people insist that failing to throw Edward Snowden in jail for years would undermine the rule of law, set a terrible precedent, and inspire more leaks. Yet no one is insisting that these leakers be punished or even identified. 

Rule-breaking by people in power is just a lot less upsetting to many American elites. Kudos to Donesa for being an exception, and to Lawfare for publishing his post.

For more on selective outrage about leaks, read Jack Shafer here.

 

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* Note that I don't think they tipped terrorists off in this way, because I'm convinced that the national-security state does more bulk collection than it admits.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/02/behold-the-selective-outrage-over-national-security-leaks/283799/