In the last week as the debate over intervention in Syria continued, some on the right have taken to referring to the prospect as President Obama’s war for al-Qaeda. Senator Ted Cruz went further, claiming that the president was transforming the U.S. Armed Forces into al-Qaeda’s Air Force. This is utterly irresponsible, not only because it panders to conspiracy theories but also because it distorts the discussion about the opposition to the Assad regime in an effort to sweep away concerns about giving the butcher of Damascus impunity to commit further atrocities. But those eager to focus on those who are actually aiding al-Qaeda—as opposed to merely smearing their political opponents—have a better target for their ire than the president. Today’s Washington Post contains an article based on leaks of classified information by Edward Snowden that can best be described as a field guide for terrorists seeking to combat U.S. drones.
The piece, which is based on a “top-secret report” on the subject titled “Threats to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” details vulnerabilities of drones and discusses the concerted efforts, including the creation of cells of engineers, to “shoot down, jam and remotely hijack” U.S. aircraft. This is fascinating stuff, but though the Post claims many details about drone capabilities are already in the public domain and that it held back some of the material Snowden has illegally leaked, it nevertheless constitutes a major breach of security. Though Snowden and his friends at the Post and elsewhere may think they are bolstering liberty with these disclosures, that is a delusion. As with much of what Snowden and his journalist collaborators have published since he fled the country with a computer full of secrets about the war on al-Qaeda, it is hard to know how much these revelations help the terrorists. Whatever the exact extent of damage to America’s counter-terrorist campaign, there’s little doubt it is a favor to al-Qaeda and hurts the United States. Publishing these kind of operational details about drones does nothing to advance the debate about whether the government should use them against terrorists. But it does raise serious questions about the motives of publications that have come to believe that exposing any details—even those that are directly related to shooting down U.S. aircraft—is fair game for the press.
It is the duty of the free press in our republic to hold the government accountable and to expose its doings to the light whenever possible. But there is a difference between press freedom and stripping the nation of its ability to defend itself. Whatever you may think about the Obama administration’s use of drones, they are part of an active American campaign to attack terrorists who are at war with the United States. Publishing material that directly relates to the ability of terrorists to block this campaign crosses the line that should exist between covering the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus and actively seeking to cripple their operations.
We live in an era in which groups like WikiLeaks and figures such as Snowden have taken upon themselves the job of waging war on the entire concept of American security. Their frame of reference is one that denies any need for secrecy even when it concerns the safety of active-service personnel or attacks against terrorist targets. You don’t need to support the idea of war in Syria or even approve of President Obama’s policies to understand this is a point of view that is incompatible with the nation’s ability to defend itself.
That major newspapers have in recent years adopted a stance toward the publication of classified material that is in many respects indistinguishable from that of WikiLeaks is shocking. Reports on drone vulnerabilities are, after all, not the moral equivalent of the Pentagon Papers—the landmark case about publication of classified reports—which was a historical document outlining American misadventures in Vietnam and labeled as classified only to spare the government embarrassment.
The Post story on drones is just the latest example of a trend in which it and other major publication such as the New York Times have taken it upon themselves to be the arbiter of what the public may know about security stories. While no one should treat everything labeled as “secret” by the Pentagon or the CIA as sacrosanct, you don’t need a security clearance to understand that a public discussion of how to shoot down or jam a drone aimed at al-Qaeda has little to do with democracy and everything to do with undermining the government’s ability to defend the American people.
Past generations of journalists understood that loyalty to their country sometimes had to supersede their innate desire to get scoops. If they don’t understand the difference between a free press and being the willing idiots of al-Qaeda, it’s time for the Post, the Times, and other papers to rethink their approach to these issues and to step back from their cooperation with Snowden.