The List

Good Leak, Bad Leak

A look at the Obama administration's hot-and-cold approach to secrets.

There's something troubling about the recent leaks to the New York Times about President Barack Obama's involvement in authorizing the targeted killings of suspected terrorists and launching cyberattacks against an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility: they're coming from the same administration that has prosecuted more government officials under the Espionage Act of 1917 for sharing classified information with the media than all previous administrations combined. (As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wrote in a 2010 memo, "People in the intelligence business should be like my grandchildren -- seen but not heard.") Just this week, an American general who suggested that U.S. and South Korean Special Forces were parachuting into North Korea to conduct espionage was replaced in what the military insisted, amid murmurs of disbelief, was a routine personnel change.

This contradictory posture toward national security leaks has exposed the White House to accusations this week that it clamps down on whistleblowing when the disclosures undermine its agenda but eagerly volunteers anonymous "senior administration officials" for interviews when politically expedient. Salon's Glenn Greenwald condemned the "administration's manipulative game-playing with its secrecy powers," the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer called the report on Obama's targeted killings a "White House press release" (the report's authors dispute that claim), and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle decried the "accelerating pace of such disclosures," calling for an investigation and new legislation to address the problem. "They're intentionally leaking information to enhance President Obama's image as a tough guy for the elections," Senator John McCain (R-AZ) charged on Tuesday.

The White House, for its part, has dismissed this allegation as "grossly irresponsible" and argued that, in fact, it seeks to plug leaks that could jeopardize counterterrorism or intelligence operations. But as the examples below suggest, the Obama administration hardly has dealt consistently with counterterrorism and intelligence leaks over the past three-and-a-half years.


Prosecution? No.

Leak: In late May, the New York Times, drawing on interviews with "three dozen of [Obama's] current and former advisers," reported that the president personally approves the names on a "kill list" of suspected terrorists, describing one scene in the White House Situation Room in which Obama pores over a chart of targets resembling a "high school yearbook." While the story cited several anonymous sources, the reporters also quoted aides such as National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon (pictured with Obama above) and Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan directly. As Michael Cohen noted this week at Foreign Policy, the revelations may provide Obama with a political boost given that a whopping 83 percent of Americans approve of Obama's drone policy.


Prosecution? Yes.

Leak: Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst, is currently charged with aiding the enemy, among other counts, for working with WikiLeaks to orchestrate the biggest leak of classified information in U.S. history -- one that included 250,000 diplomatic cables (many of which were deeply embarrassing for the United States, to say the least), tens of thousands of classified documents from Afghanistan, and a video of a U.S. helicopter strike killing unarmed civilians in Baghdad. This week, the judge in the case ordered the U.S. government to hand over its assessments of the damage that Manning, who faces life in prison if found guilty, caused to U.S. interests around the world.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


Prosecution? No.

Leak: Last week, the New York Times reported that Obama has accelerated a campaign of cyberattacks known as "Olympic Games" against Iran, temporarily disabling 1,000 centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility (pictured above) through the Stuxnet computer worm. The reporting was based on "interviews over the past 18 months with current and former American, European and Israeli officials involved in the program, as well as a range of outside experts," none of whom were named. Some political observers suspect that the administration leaked these details to emphasize the president's aggressive action to prevent Iran -- the country that Americans feel poses the greatest danger to the United States -- from acquiring nuclear weapons, particularly during an election year in which Mitt Romney has criticized Obama for being soft on Tehran.


Prosecution? Yes.

Leak: In 2010, a senior National Security Agency employee named Thomas Drake was indicted for providing classified information to a Baltimore Sun reporter about a costly, invasive, and ultimately botched NSA technology program called Trailblazer -- charges that could have landed him 35 years in prison. Instead, Drake pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor (misuse of an agency computer) and served no prison time after the government refused to disclose details about the documents Drake allegedly leaked. At the sentencing, the judge called the Justice Department's handling of the case "unconscionable," noting that Drake had been through "four years of hell."

Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images


Prosecution? No.

Leak: In the aftermath of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, anonymous U.S. officials talked to reporters about everything from the most minute details of the operation itself to the fake vaccination drive that the CIA set up in Abbottabad, Pakistan, to obtain DNA from the al Qaeda leader's family. In May, the government watchdog group Judicial Watch revealed that the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House granted Hollywood filmmakers access to a Navy SEAL who was involved in planning the raid. Earlier this week, John McCain suggested that the administration's "flurry of anonymous boasting" about the bin Laden operation had outed Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who ran the CIA's vaccination program and was recently sentenced to 33 years in prison by a Pakistani court for high treason.


Prosecution? Yes.

Leak: In 2011, a former CIA officer named Jeffrey Sterling was arrested for disclosing classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen (shown above) about Operation Merlin, a failed CIA effort to undermine Iran's nuclear program, which Risen used in his 2006 book State of War. Later in 2011, Risen fought a subpoena to testify at Sterling's trial in what he characterized as a defense of "the First Amendment and freedom of the press." A federal appeals court panel is still deciding whether Risen should be forced to testify, as Sterling's trial hangs in the balance. "Sanger writes on successful Iranian operation, gets wide access," AP reporter Matt Apuzzo tweeted last week, in reference to David Sanger's recent articles in the New York Times on Obama's cyberattacks against Iran. "Risen writes on botched Iranian operation, gets subpoenaed."

Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press


Prosecution? No.

Leak: When the American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (pictured above) was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen last September, political leaders and legal scholars demanded that the Obama administration release a declassified version of the Justice Department memo that provided the legal rationale for killing a U.S. citizen without a trial. (For what it's worth, most Americans approve of strikes against suspected terrorists, even if they are American citizens.) It wasn't long before the contents of the memo were leaked to the New York Times -- an action Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith, in an article for Foreign Policy, described as an attempt by the executive branch to "have its cake (not talking about the [drone] program to serve diplomatic interests and perhaps deflect scrutiny) and eat it too (leaking to get credit for the operation and portray it as lawful)." Another law professor, Kenneth Anderson, accused the administration of "conducting the foreign policy of the U.S. by leaked journalism."


Prosecution? Yes.

Leak: In January, the Justice Department charged former CIA officer John Kiriakou with leaking classified information to journalists about the identity of a CIA analyst who participated in 2002 detention and interrogation of al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah  (Kiriakou also gave an interview to ABC News in 2007 in which he described waterboarding as torture). A month later, when White House press secretary Jay Carney noted that three Western journalists had died while trying to illuminate the "truth" about the bloodshed in Syria, Jake Tapper of ABC News asked Carney how his praise for "aggressive journalism abroad" squared with the administration's attempts to "stop aggressive journalism in the United States by using the Espionage Act to take whistleblowers to court."

Carney sidestepped the question, noting that the cases Tapper was referring to involved "highly sensitive, classified information," and returned to the brave journalists in Syria. "I particularly appreciate what they did to bring that story to the American people," he explained.

Administration officials, of course, have at times brought highly sensitive, classified stories to the American people -- when they had good stories to tell, that is.

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The List

China’s Lies, Damn Lies, and Secret Statistics

Besides pollution figures, what else is Beijing trying to keep hush-hush?

Beijing makes no secret of its secrecy. While the government has become much less controlling than it used to be, information that doesn't suit Beijing's larger purposes still gets withheld, while information that doesn't quite suit its purposes is often polished until it does. Only last month, an op-ed in the state-run newspaper Beijing Daily exposed local reporters displaying a shameful inclination towards balanced journalism. "Chinese media interested in negative news have been seduced into wrongdoing by Western concepts," it fumed.

China's sensitivity about its control of the bad-news agenda was highlighted once again this week when Beijing publicly chided the U.S. embassy for measuring Beijing's sometimes "crazy bad" air pollution and publishing the data on Twitter. The damage is limited: although many expats and web savvy Chinese can still access it, Twitter is blocked in China. Nonetheless, the U.S. embassy smog readings are embarrassing for the Chinese government, whose own pollution measures tend to be much more favourable.

But pollution is just one of the items on the propaganda hit list. Anything that might shed some light on policy failures, social ills, or even the personalities of the country's leaders is liable to be altered or suppressed. Here, then, are six of Beijing's bad-news taboos.


1.  Economic data

The growth of the Chinese economy is a good-news story that has generally required only light touches of the censor's red pen, but with an expected slowdown in China's economy coupled with the world economy more dependent on Chinese growth than ever before, the markets would love to get a closer look at China Inc.'s books to reassure themselves that the economic miracle is predicated on numbers that add up. Honesty is key to market confidence, and Beijing has been open in reporting many of the worrying indicators, such as weak manufacturing output, emerging about its economy's medium-term prospects.

Yet there are suggestions that Beijing is becoming less, not more, transparent when it comes to the economy. Recently, the government began withholding financial reports about Chinese companies from foreign investors -- information that it previously made available. And in May, Beijing ruled that the local affiliates of the "Big Four" international auditing firms must be managed by Chinese nationals by 2017 if they want to continue auditing Chinese company accounts. This follows the resignation last year of a number of Western auditors working on Chinese company books after they claimed to have discovered irregularities.

If Beijing is anticipating a run of grim economic data, its natural inclination may be to keep more and more statistics out of the public domain. In 2007, a government report was commissioned detailing the economic cost of the environmental damage suffered as a result of the country's modernization, featuring data from both the State Environmental Protection Administration, and the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the governmental agency that compiles the government's social and economic statistics. Senior government figures evidently found it uncomfortable reading, and never released the data.


2. Crime

China has become more realistic about its law-and-order problems since the supposedly crime-free days of Mao's socialist utopia. Beijing's official data claims that non-violent crime is on the rise but also that the murder rate dropped by half from 2000 to 2009.

So eyebrows were raised in 2010 when a government think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, reported that violent crime had risen for the first time in a decade. The admission came in response to a string of violent incidents, often involving multiple random homicides, which shocked the general public and made it impossible for Beijing to ignore. But social scientists were sceptical about the claim that violent crime had only just started to increase. Their inevitable question: Were the crime figures being massaged all along?

Part of the problem may be that the crime-reporting procedures used by China's police are out of date. A sense of sympathy for violent criminals in an increasingly angry society is also a disturbing development that the government wants masked. Earlier this year, the Communist Party's newspaper People's Daily asked Chinese netizens how they felt about the brutal murder of a doctor in the northeast city of Harbin: two thirds said that they were "happy" about the case. That was definitely too much public information for Beijing, and the story was quickly deleted from the newspaper's website. 

China Photos/Getty Images

3. Social unrest

Chinese society is undergoing wrenching change, and the widening gap between rich and poor is one of Beijing's foremost policy concerns.

The government is open about the disparity in urban and rural incomes. However, in one version of the story, the wealth gap is narrowing: According to the NBS, the ratio of urban to rural incomes across China shrank to 3.13 to 1 in 2011 from 3.33 to 1 in 2009. But in other versions of the wealth-gap story inequality is getting worse -- especially when one factors in the undisclosed income of the urban rich. Even the state media have cast doubt on the NBS figures, with China Daily asserting in April that "policies and measures have failed to reverse the widening income gap."

Beijing has also become wary of publishing data about the "mass incidents," as it describes them, which are often triggered by abuses by officials in the provinces. Individual cases such as last year's uprising in Wukan -- the village in Guangdong that successfully ousted its corrupt local leaders -- occasionally attract international attention. But countless similar episodes throughout the Chinese countryside (not least in restive Tibet and Xinjiang) are going largely unreported. Foreign journalists often estimate that around 100,000 "disturbances" erupt in China annually. Beijing likely knows the real figure, but isn't telling.


4. Leader's Personal Lives

China's leaders are fiercely protective when it comes to their own private realm. So while ordinary Chinese citizens know who President Hu Jintao is, and possibly what his wife's name is, virtually no meaningful information about their personal lives filters through to the public domain. State media portrays the country's leaders as one-dimensional figures defined only by their official careers and by their all-consuming desire for people's welfare; a Chinese journalist was sacked for reporting the "state secret" that Hu has diabetes. Compare that to the reams of pages published about the private lives of the Obamas, and you get the idea.

What do they have to hide? In some cases, a staggering amount. Occasionally, when the Communist Party feeds one of its own to the media monster for transgressions too extreme to deal with internally, we catch a glimpse of the colorful lives these people sometimes lead. Bo Xilai, for example, makes John Edwards look like a choirboy: The story of the ex-Politburo member's recent downfall is lurid with accusations of murder, conspiracy, corruption, and embezzlement. The stories that are openly reported are extraordinary enough: the Communist Party official who had his mistress assassinated; the former railways minister kicked out of the Party in May for supposedly stealing $157 million; the princeling who literally thought he could get away with murder in 2010 because his father was the deputy chief of police of a mid-sized city.

The latter case was an object lesson for the government: its attempts to suppress the story backfired, and it ended up going viral. The message was that blanket censorship doesn't always work. It's better instead to protect the core by sacrificing a few hopeless cases at the fringe. But how the Party decides which individuals to protect, and which to throw to the wolves, we simply don't know.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

5. Mega-projects

Data on China's extraordinary feats of engineering are plentiful. The span of the world's longest sea bridge in Qingdao, the generating capacity of the Three Gorges Dam, the speed of the Shanghai Maglev: We know all sorts of details about these projects, as it's a source of great pride.

But when the gloss rubs off these prestige projects, the information flow can quickly dry up. After years of popular misgivings about the environmental impact of the Three Gorges Dam -- the observed effects ranging from earthquakes to landslides to drought -- the government finally admitted in 2011 that it had major concerns about its flagship engineering project. However, detailed environmental data have yet to emerge; the assumption is that they would make horrible reading for the millions of people who live nearby.  

Similarly, the fiasco of China's ambitious high-speed rail program was publicly acknowledged last year after a crash near Wenzhou killed 40 people. Only in the face of a public outcry triggered by the deaths and the ham-fisted apologies of railway officials did another truth come out: that the project was being run by a group of corrupt individuals who were determined to roll out the network as quickly as possible, regardless of the safety implications and the exorbitant financial costs. The once-feted program has now largely dropped out of the news, as China scales back its original ambitions for a national high-speed network.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

6. Tragic histories

China is hardly unique in struggling to come to terms with the mistakes of the past. However, while the Communist Party advocates self-criticism, only so much criticism of the Party's blunders can be tolerated for fear of undermining its legitimacy. Thus discussion of the most painful episodes in China's modern history -- the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the crackdown in Tiananmen Square -- remains strictly circumscribed.

The government possesses detailed demographic records dating back to the 1950s, courtesy of its extensive network of Public Security Bureaus (effectively local police stations). This data, alongside other government records, could provide a more accurate estimate of how many people died as a result of government purges and the famines caused by Mao's disastrous economic policies. But Beijing won't open the files for public viewing any time soon.

Information continues to leak out about the much more recent Tiananmen massacre. Back in 1989, then Beijing mayor Chen Xitong blamed a "tiny handful of people" for provoking the government's "correct" actions. In early June of this year, however, the terminally ill former official declared that Tiananmen was "a tragedy that could have been avoided and should have been avoided." For a government struggling, and perhaps failing, to control the Tiananmen narrative, it was another piece of bad news. Clearly, the U.S. embassy's pollution tweets are the least of the government's information worries.

ED JONES/AFP/GettyImages