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.

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?


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.