Zero Dark Verizon: Why D.C. Hates Leaks Until It Loves Hunting Them Down

The Obama administration has investigated more leak than all others combined, and its chase for leakers is straying into madness.

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The Obama administration has investigated more leaks than all the others combined, and now its hunt for leakers is straying into madness. There will be a government investigation into the leak of the Pentagon report about CIA leaks to the producer of Zero Dark Thirty, The Wall Street Journal's Siobhan Gorman reports. And, according to NBC's Brian Williams, the government will likely investigate who leaked to The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald that the National Security Agency got a court order for the metadata of every single call made by a Verizon customer over three months this year.

More than many reporters, Greenwald's style, devoted fan base, and history of covering the national security state would make him the perfect leak martyr. "I was told last night: definitely there will be a leak investigation," NBC's Williams said of Greenwald's report on Thursday. Later on MSNBC, Williams sounded more cautious, saying, "It seems highly likely this will trigger a leak investigation." A senior administration official told The Huffington Post's Michael Calderone that that was premature — "There's been no referral yet from the intelligence community."

Yet! That "yet" is very important. As The New Yorker's Steve Coll explains, "Under a thirty-year-old executive order issued by the White House, the intelligence agencies must inform the Justice Department whenever they believe that classified information has been disclosed illegally to the press. These referrals operate on a kind of automatic pilot, and the system is unbalanced." It's up to prosecutors in the Justice Department's national security division to decide whether to turn the leak into a criminal case. Under Obama, those prosecutors have been more likely to act than under other presidents. Last month, The Washington Post revealed the Justice Department went so far as to name Fox News reporter James Rosen as a possible co-conspirator in violating the Espionage Act.

It's important to note that before there was a scandal about the Obama administration's leak investigations, there was a scandal that the Obama administration wasn't investigating leaks enough. The leaky Obama administration was a major story on Fox News after details about the killing of Osama bin Laden first came out in 2011, and again in 2012, with the disclosure of cyberattacks on Iran's nuclear program. The Pentagon investigation into the Zero Dark Thirty leaks was in response to a letter from New York Rep. Peter King, a Republican who has said White House leaks are worse than Watergate.

The Pentagon's investigation found that then-CIA chief Leon Panetta accidentally leaked the existence of SEAL Team 6 in a 2011 speech to CIA agents that, unbeknownst to Panetta, Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal was attending. Panetta "identified the ground commander by name" and revealed other secrets, the report found. Panetta also wanted to be portrayed by Al Pacino, the report says. "One person familiar with the Pentagon report said the leak of it has sparked a government investigation of its own," the Journal reports.

But this leak investigation madness is not enough for some people. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat (pictured above), railed against The Guardian's report, saying on MSNBC on Thursday, "I think we have become a culture of leaks now." Like many of her colleagues on Capitol Hill and the airwaves, she dismissed any outrage over the NSA's database of all phone records and all emails as no big deal. "There is nothing new in this program," Feinstein said. "The fact of the matter is, that this was a routine three-month approval under seal that was leaked." That's interesting, because the official government talking points do not confirm Greenwald's report is true, or that the court order posted by The Guardian is real. Further, while the government vaguely says these kind of tools are useful for stopping terrorists, it does not explain when or how often those tools are used. Feinstein's comment — "a routine three-month approval" — indicates that the warrant is a regular thing that happens four times a year. If that's true, that's new information. Thus we simply must demand a leak investigation into Dianne Feinstein.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.