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Op-Ed

Leaks and an Irresponsible Press

Paul R. Pillar

One end-of-year retrospective assessment that ought to appear in the press, but probably won’t, concerns how the press itself has handled stories involving compromise of classified information. One reason we seldom see this particular type of self-evaluation by the media is the rarely acknowledged pro-leak bias on the part of the media. Leaks are red meat for the press. They provide material for the writing of nifty stories and the selling of newspapers.

The very media on which the public relies for information and analysis about the legitimate and important issue of balancing national security and civil liberties thus present a strongly biased treatment of this issue—and not just in pro-leak commentary on editorial pages. The bias has been readily apparent in coverage of the biggest story of 2013 about compromise of classified information: the wholesale disclosure of such information by the defector and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The attention the press has paid to the damage caused by Snowden’s actions has been tiny compared to the prominence it has given to the issues of privacy on behalf of which Snowden claimed to be acting.

Biased coverage is only part of the problem in how the press has behaved in this matter. Just as important has been the media’s own role in facilitating the compromise of classified information. The press has eaten out of the hands of Snowden and his leak-dispensing collaborator, Glenn Greenwald. The press has willingly implemented the leakers’ strategy of beginning with stories that could be said to be related to the privacy rights of American citizens, and as such helped to establish an image of Snowden as a “whistleblower,” before moving to many other disclosures that have little or nothing to do with such rights but rather just divulge many details about NSA’s legitimate intelligence collection activities overseas. The press—and specifically the outlets that Snowden and Greenwald have favored as channels for fencing their stolen secrets, and thus are outlets that can claim scoops—have printed this stuff week after week. It makes for nifty stories and it sells newspapers, but little or no public purpose could plausibly be claimed to be served by most of this. With most of this stuff the effect is nearly all damage. The cumulative direct damage, both to U.S. intelligence collection and to U.S. foreign relations, has been severe.

The damage does not end there. Another dimension one seldom sees mentioned in press coverage, but that David V. Gioe lucidly explains in an article in the January-February 2014 issue of The National Interest, is how the leaking deters would-be foreign interlocutors with information to offer. These include people who would otherwise be valuable intelligence sources, as well as foreign officials who would otherwise have useful information to convey to U.S. diplomats. Both types are understandably dissuaded from talking to Americans when they are given reason to fear that either their contacts with the United States or the content of their conversations will be divulged publicly in leaks.

An irony about this concerns how often one hears reference to the “chilling effect” that some activity by NSA supposedly will have on discourse among Americans. A much more likely, and probably more damaging, chilling effect is the one that discourages foreigners from talking to Americans. Some such chilling effect has almost certainly already been felt as a result of Bradley Manning’s wholesale disclosure of U.S. diplomatic cables and the multitude of press stories made out of them.

The damage does not end there, either. One also has to consider the effect the press’s treatment of a leaker may have on other would-be future leakers who might consider causing still more damage with still more leaks. In other circumstances the press seems to be conscious of the danger of such demonstration effects. There has been considerable media introspection lately, for example, about whether the press should strive to limit the publicity given to suicidal gunmen who conduct shooting sprees in schools or other public places.

A vivid example of the apparent lack of consideration editors give to the same sort of demonstration effect involving damaging leakers is the front page of this past Tuesday’s Washington Post. Pasted across the top in conspicuously large type is the headline, “Edward Snowden: ‘I already won’ ” Underneath the headline—and taking up most of the above-the-fold space on the front page—is a color picture of an apparently relaxed and smug Snowden, sitting cross-legged with his laptop in his lap and his arm casually atop the armrest of a sofa, and a gold-framed painting on the wall behind him. A high-priced publicist hired by Snowden and Greenwald could not have laid out the page any more to their liking. And it is hard to imagine a more glorifying encouragement to anyone else thinking of inflicting damage on the United States by stealing and revealing its secrets.

Even in some instances involving classified information, the press has shown its ability to act responsibly. A recent example concerns how journalists evidently sat for several years on the story of how Robert Levinson, the former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran, had a connection to a CIA officer running an unauthorized operation. They sat on the story for the very good reason of not further endangering Levinson. In this and similar instances, most journalists and their editors seem willing not to run with a secret-divulging story if there is a very specific and imminent harm to be avoided, such as a particular individual being in mortal danger. They seem less willing not to jump into print if the harm of publishing a story—although at least as great—is not as specific and imminent. Given this pattern, one suspects that the main concern of the journalists and editors is not so much to avoid harm to the national interest as it is to avoid being blamed for a specific and easily identifiable tragic result. And that attitude is irresponsible.

This piece was originally posted on
The National Interest
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