Obama's Secret Hypocrisy

Why is the president cracking down on whistleblowers while his administration is leaking like a sieve?

"I know how strange all this must sound. We have been taught, particularly in the past generation of spy scares and Cold War, to think of secrets as secrets -- varying in their ‘sensitivity' but uniformly essential to the private conduct of diplomatic and military affairs and somehow detrimental to the national interest if prematurely disclosed. By the standards of official Washington -- Government and press alike -- this is an antiquated, quaint and romantic view." — Former New York Times Washington correspondent Max Frankel, 1971

Since the New York Times published two important stories containing classified information two weeks ago -- one being U.S. President Barack Obama's "kill list" and another regarding a series of U.S. cyberattacks against Iran -- Congress has been replete with bipartisan outrage. Embarrassingly, this outcry has not been directed toward debate of the potentially unprecedented constitutional implications brought about by the stories, but about who leaked the classified information to reporters.

Congress's call for increased government secrecy by way of prosecution, which has led to Attorney General Eric Holder assigning two Justice Department attorneys to investigate the alleged leaks, threatens the very foundation of reporting on U.S. national security and foreign policy. Leaks have been the lifeblood of investigative journalism -- and Washington politics -- for decades. If they become criminalized on a large scale, it could do irreparable damage to both freedom of the press and the public's right to know what the government is doing abroad in its name.

A Long History of Leaks

This was the lesson learned 41 years ago this month, when Richard Nixon's administration tried to censor the New York Times for publishing classified information in the Pentagon Papers case. As James Goodale, the paper's general counsel at the time, recounted to me this week, even the Times's outside lawyers did not understand how much leaks affected foreign-policy reporting at the start of the case. The first batch of Times lawyers quit the night before the first court hearing, and the newly hired replacements were still leery of the Times's contention that leaking was commonplace. Veteran Washington correspondent Max Frankel, who reported on the Pentagon Papers, was so incensed after trying in vain to convince them that he went home and wrote down his argument in essay form.

"What Frankel wrote became one of the most important documents in history of press freedom," Goodale said. "Not only did it sway our outside lawyers to defend the case in court, but we turned it into sworn statement which helped sway the district court judge to rule in our favor."

Without leaks, "there could be no adequate diplomatic, military and political reporting of the kind our people take for granted, either abroad or in Washington," Frankel wrote. "[T]he reporter and the official trespass regularly, customarily, easily, and unselfconsciously (even unconsciously) through what they both know to be official ‘secrets'....almost everything in government is kept secret for a time and, in the foreign policy field, classified as ‘secret' and ‘sensitive' beyond any rule of law or reason. Every minor official can testify to this fact." Attached were dozens of examples and clipped stories of classified information appearing in the paper consistently for years. Frankel's full affidavit can and should be read in full here.

Administrations have always done exactly what Obama's has: condemn leaks in public while leaking for its own benefit. Dwight Eisenhower "deplore[d]" leaks when asked, but would call New York Times reporter Scottie Reston into the White House to feed him off-the-record material. John F. Kennedy once stated in a press conference that any leak of national security information was "unfortunate" and denied knowing any specifics, yet Frankel writes of being allowed to quote from transcripts of conversations with the Soviet Union's foreign minister to demonstrate, like Obama, Kennedy's "‘toughness' toward the Communists." And Bush -- who said, "if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated law, the person will be taken care of" -- presided over an administration that leaked classified information to justify the Iraq war and outed a covert agent in response to criticism.

Franklin Roosevelt was probably the greatest leaker of all, calling reporters into the Oval Office for off-the-record press conferences, after which they could only attribute his quotes to a "senior administration official." Even the founding fathers were guilty: Thomas Paine once leaked a state secret about the United States covertly receiving aid from France before the two countries became allies. And the list goes on.

Every administration leaks classified information because it's virtually impossible not to. As Frankel explained, "For practically everything that our Government does, plans, thinks, hears and contemplates in the realms of foreign policy is stamped and treated as secret." Forty years later, his words ring truer: The U.S. government classified 77 million documents in 2010, a more than twelvefold increase since 1991. Of the more than 4.2 million people who hold some sort of classification clearance, 1.4 million of them are "top secret" -- the highest classification.

It is for that reason that one can't step a foot into the shallow end of any leak controversy without stumbling upon rank hypocrisy. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has led the charge calling for more leak investigations this time around, was once accused of leaking classified information when she revealed the location of a Pakistan drone base during a Senate hearing. Sen. Richard Shelby, sponsor of an anti-leaks bill that passed the Senate during Bill Clinton's administration, was found to have leaked classified information to journalists about the NSA a few years later.

Attacks on Freedom of Press

Other leak investigations have engulfed journalists, but the current probe may dwarf others. Given one of the many stories being investigated alone counted three dozen current and former officials as its sources, prosecutors will soon get their hands on mountains of email containing correspondence with reporters. Journalists from the New York Times, AP, Newsweek and perhaps others can expect the Justice Department will now have their emails with these officials. How many journalists will be spied on by the government they're supposed to cover? How many future foreign-policy stories will be disrupted because of this? Will journalists again face the conundrum: give up their sources to a grand jury or face jail? Only time will tell, but the answers will likely not be good.

Thankfully, media outrage toward the potential prosecutions has grown in recent days, as well it should; but it is long overdue. The Obama administration has already brought six Espionage Act cases against low-level leakers -- more than all previous administrations combined. And the grand jury empanelled in Alexandria, Virginia, investigating WikiLeaks for publishing classified information threatens to take this controversy one step further -- criminalizing the reporting aspect of leaks and making a mockery of the First Amendment. It shouldn't take investigations into the powerful for us to stand up for press freedom.

America's finest journalism is often produced with the aid of classified information; the New York Times's report on warrantless wiretapping and the Washington Post's exposé on CIA secret prisons, both winners of the Pulitzer Prize, are just two of countless examples. If the Justice Department were charged with investigating every leak, not only would the public not know what its government was doing, but government would cease to function. Indeed, if leak prosecutions had been commonplace for the last four decades, nearly every senior White House official would be in jail -- just for talking to Bob Woodward.

To put it simply, quoting Frankel, leaks are "the coin of our business and of the officials with whom we regularly deal." If Congress has a problem with that, then more transparency is the answer -- not more secrets.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


The Five Stages of Egypt's Revolution

It matters little who wins the presidency this weekend -- a much bloodier uprising is inevitable.

CAIRO – I was put on the spot by a wise old friend of mine in Washington several years ago. He wanted my pitch on Egypt in 30 seconds or less. "This is a town beset with attention deficit disorder," he said, "so what have you got?" I gulped and offered up the "three Ms of Egypt": the military, the mosque, and the masses.

Despite the popular revolt against Hosni Mubarak's regime last year, it remains true that the only political contest that counts in Egypt has pitted its military generals against the mosque's imams and leaders. Both want control over the masses -- 85 million Egyptians. The recent elections highlighted these three Ms: However depressing for many reformers and activists, the culmination of nearly 18 months of mass protest now pits the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammad Morsi against Ahmed Shafiq, a retired military officer and former Mubarak prime minister.

Whether the military or the mosque wins the runoff this weekend, reformers and their supporters around the world need to consider some equally important potential futures scenarios. Their first step should be to dust off a copy of Crane Brinton's An Anatomy of Revolution, a 1938 study that considers major revolutions in history, identifies the factors influencing them, and attempts to extrapolate certain "rules" for how such seismic political transitions play out. In the startling air of uncertainty pervading Egypt's current impasse, it provides at least a framework -- and often strangely accurate reference point -- from which to contemplate events. And it serves as a guide, and a warning, to Egypt's future. This week's court ruling blessing Shafiq's candidacy and dissolving parliament -- reasserting the military's grip on power and infuriating millions of Egyptians in the process -- should only be taken as another sign that the center, hemorrhaging ever more legitimacy, ultimately cannot hold.

Brinton would tell you that in the long run, it actually doesn't really matter who the next president of Egypt is. Morsi and Shafiq are doppelgangers: Both are ghosts of the past, circling each other, embedded in the old system that has defined and sustained them for decades. Of course, the man from the military and the man from the mosque each claim to be the true champion of the revolution. In truth, it's likely that neither is -- and that both will pass from the scene as the revolution's pendulum swings inexorably to the extremes.

You may be asking: How can it not matter? While the mosque (in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood) and the military (in the form of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) stand triumphant, each risks losing its grip on political power. Both will inevitably be the victims of true political transformation and swept away, as Brinton would say, through the course of events.

There are signs now that this could happen and, not surprisingly, both Morsi and Shafiq know it. The Brotherhood's initial reluctance to support last year's revolution has been replaced by its enthusiastic participation in the democratic process, from elections to constitutional reform. The mosque is now seen as fully committed to regime change, and is quietly flirting with the more extreme revolutionaries, both secular and religious, on the margins of Egypt's political environment -- ranging from the revolutionary youth to the ultraconservative wings of his Salafist counterparts. But despite this tentative flirtation, Morsi and his co-leaders would far rather Shafiq and his military allies take the vote than turn the country over to Egypt's true revolutionaries. For example, a deal struck between the SCAF and the Brotherhood's leadership on the eve of last November's parliamentary elections apparently benefited both camps more than the many thousands of protesters who had threatened to derail the election schedule. As the vote went ahead as planned, the Brotherhood won nearly half the seats, while allowing the SCAF to retain ultimate power -- a deal that served the short-term interests of both sides.

 In the near future, however, the three Ms are far less significant than the big E: Egypt's economy. Whoever the next president is, the economic challenges that confront him -- ranging from chronic unemployment to ailing foreign credit -- are urgent. In the last 18 months the country's foreign currency reserves have plummeted by more than half, and foreign direct investment last year totaled only one-third of the 2010 figure. Tourism has cratered. Aside from the military establishment, the state's resources and capacity are worn out and poorly functioning -- when they function at all.

Finally, the relationships between the legislative assembly, the presidency, and the executive have yet to be defined. They limp along today in a dystopian setting, as Egypt's political forces bicker over the makeup of the assembly to draft a new constitution. The parliament has historically been little more than a rubber stamp for regime policies and, even as Egyptians go to the polls to select a new president, it is a mystery what powers that figure will possess. A relatively emasculated presidency with little real capacity to enforce policy changes remains a distinct possibility.

It seems all too possible now that, to effect real political change, Egypt's revolution will need to somehow devour both mosque and military. Genuine redistribution of political power will require a dramatic upheaval of these entrenched systems. As political theorist Gene Sharp warns in his 1993 treatise From Dictatorship to Democracy: "Nowhere ... do I assume that defying dictators will be an easy or cost-free endeavor. All forms of struggle have complications and costs. ... The fall of one regime does not bring in a utopia."

In Egypt, these casualties would not only include the hundreds of young men dead on the streets, but also the destruction of arrangements that favored certain sections of Egyptian society and provided the foundation for its political order. Once again, Brinton offers guidance for how to think of this process by conceiving of revolutions in terms of stages: In his model, Egypt has traversed the first stage -- the collapse of the regime -- and begun stage two, epitomized by an ineffective, moderate interim government that fails to deliver sufficient political change. Depending on how you apply this framework to the Egyptian setting, this second stage may equate to either the interim SCAF or some kind of "inclusive" -- i.e. badly fudged -- government that will be unpopular, and destined to fail. Again, whether this administration is led by Morsi or Shafiq makes little difference in the long run.

The failure of the moderates will bring about stage three: the wholesale disintegration of a measured transition process, leading to widespread political confusion, major clashes, and the beginnings of violence verging on anarchy. Stage four ushers in the radical, purging, period -- terrifying for its uncompromising zeal and tyranny. This "fever," in Brinton's terminology, breaks in the final stage, as the radical leadership burns itself out and is replaced by a more stable and long-term representative government.

It's unclear who the "stage four" zealots will be in the Egyptian context, though some kind of militarized religious force seems probable. Indeed, the Salafists and other more extreme religious groups are conspicuously absent from the current clash of the mainstream factions -- particularly considering their astonishing election performance that gave them 25 percent of parliament.. Their silence, like that of France's Jacobins or Russia's Bolsheviks, is telling. They are, quite obviously, patiently awaiting the weakening of the military and the mosque, which are just now in the process of weakening each other -- as the contending moderate parties in revolutionary France and Russia weakened each other -- paving the way for the extremists.

Of course, this kind of framework is often dismissed as the mindless wanderings of historical structuralists. Egypt is neither Russia nor France. Yet, in the context of Egypt's current political dilemma, Brinton's scenarios need to be taken seriously. What they suggest is what we already know to be true: The outcome of Egypt's revolution will not be decided by a committee, it will not be managed, and it will not be moderated. It will be decided in the streets, as all revolutions are. Egypt's revolution is not nearing an end, it's only just beginning.