The Obama administration casts a wide net — in designating enemy combatants in drone strike zones, in prosecuting leakers, in gathering your telecommunications metadata. In short, one of the hallmarks of this administration’s foreign and national security policy has been the expansion of some definitions already too vague to function properly: particularly the definition of who we consider our enemy.
With regard to the NSA surveillance, Sebastian Rotella at ProPublica wrote that the government built “a haystack of information in which to find a needle that will stop a terrorist.” As the scope of the information grows (the NSA ominously calls their internal analytics tool “Boundless Informant”), so it seems does the sense that the US government is finding more enemies in every corner. Part of this is that many of our policies serve to antagonize and radicalize, but a major part is also the expanding definition of whom the administration sees as a threat. The war on terror is not just a war against terrorists — a fact that has long been true but has become particularly and publicly evident with the events of recent weeks.
Whistleblowers are certainly on the administration’s list of enemies, facing serious (and out of proportion) legal consequence for exposing questionable government activity. Glenn Greenwald notes that prior to the Obama administration only three people had ever been prosecuted under the Espionage Act, which was enacted in 1917 for the purposes of cracking down on anti-WWI dissent. Seven prosecutions have occurred during President Obama’s nearly five year tenure. The latest of those is NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Also among the lucky seven are Pfc. Bradley Manning, former CIA officer John Kiriakou, former NSA exec Thomas Drake, State Dept. contractor and nuclear proliferation specialist Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, former FBI translator Shami Leibowitz, and former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling.
The administration’s position on this is in stark contrast to its own position on whistleblowing just after the 2008 election. The Obama-Biden transition website is still available and still lists protecting whistleblowers as a key aim of the then-incoming administration’s ethics agenda, saying:
Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.
Glenn Greenwald also argues that the hypocrisy and contradiction exists on yet another level. The administration has readily embraced strategic unauthorized leaks that serve to benefit the government’s image. Whistleblowing and reporting on national security leaks have been nothing if not stifled in the time since.
The step from whistleblower to journalist in the eyes of the national security apparatus isn’t as far as you’d hope or even expect from a country which in theory deeply prizes freedoms of speech and press. The public backlash has been not just to Edward Snowden, whose actions have placed him in the middle of a push and pull of vilification and reverence, but to the journalists with whom he had contact. Glenn Greenwald may not have leaked the information himself, but even fellow members of the media like David Gregory and Andrew Ross Sorkin have either insinuated or outright declared that he might or ought to face arrest alongside his source. Gregory used the phrase “aid and abet” to describe the reporting — a phrase that instantly implies not just guilt and complicity, but treasonous action.
Greenwald was acting as a journalist, and while he does not fit a traditionalist’s narrow image of a reporter, he remains a member of the press. As media critics like David Carr and Jay Rosen have pointed out, the attempts to categorize him alongside Snowden, whateveryou might think about the morality or legality of what Snowden chose to do, is an attempt to exclude Greenwald from typical First Amendment protections and considerations. The recent news about the government’s taps into AP telecoms and Fox News reporter James Rosen being caught up in Stephen Jin-Woo Kim’s trial are of greater concern now that we have begun drawing lines between those in the press whom we deem worthy of protection and those we don’t (David Gregory would call these people “polemicists” or maybe just bloggers).
One of the ironies is that ostensibly the war on terror is meant to protect not just the nation and its citizens, but the values espoused by the First Amendment and the rest of the Constitution. The war on terror has instead had a chilling effect on the freedoms it on some level (however superficial and posturing that might have been) was supposed to defend. Molly Redden at The New Republic interviewed several national security reporters about the effects of FBI surveillance and whistleblower prosecutions on their work. All of them reported serious impediments to their jobs and scrutiny by the FBI. Jane Mayer, The New Yorker’s admirable and talented national security journalist, called this approach ”a huge impediment to reporting,” adding that to describe the effect as “chilling isn’t quite strong enough, it’s more like freezing the whole process into a standstill.”
The national security apparatus sees leakers as a great threat, completely missing President-elect Obama’s original, long lost argument. Whistleblowers are hardly traitors, but rather are an essential part of the oversight of a government. So are journalists. The problem to be addressed lies in the waste, fraud or abuse, not in the person who took steps to uncover it and certainly not the journalists who did their job by reporting it. The problem is at home in the situation room and the Pentagon, not in limbo in Sheremetyevo Airport or in The Guardian’s newsroom. The excessive limits put on oversight and the vice grip on national security information that leave journalists struggling for sources and afraid for themselves are ultimately self-cannibalizing because they attack core elements of how this democracy is supposed to function.