Last spring, Washington was stunned by the way the Obama administration shamelessly leaked information about drone strikes and cyber-warfare tactics employed by the U.S. against Iran to leading media outlets. The leaks led to a number of flattering stories that bolstered the president’s pose as a tough military leader, including some that somehow found themselves above the fold on the front page in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. This caused a furor that forced Attorney General Eric Holder to name two special prosecutors to investigate the leaks. At that time I wondered whether this would mean some in the president’s inner circle would be subjected to the same treatment that was doled out to Scooter Libby as part of the bogus Valerie Plame investigation. But nearly a year later we’ve heard nothing about whether the obvious targets of scrutiny, top figures in the Obama White House and the Defense Department, have been ferreted out as the leakers.
Fast-forward to today and we learn that in a separate case involving the leaking of an account of an alleged foiling of a terrorist plot, the DOJ has carried out an unprecedented fishing expedition secretly seizing the phone records of what may turn out to be more than 100 editors and reporters at the Associated Press. Virtually the entire national press corps agrees this is an attempt to intimidate journalists in keeping with the fact that this administration has prosecuted twice as many leaking cases as all of its predecessors combined.
Without learning more about the case in question, it’s impossible to judge just how much of an overreach the DOJ has engaged in here. Attorney General Holder, who held a news conference today only to tell us that he had recused himself from the investigation, didn’t add much to our knowledge other than to say it was serious and lives were endangered. But what we do know is that although this administration thinks nothing of engaging in such high-handed tactics, we’ve yet to see any highly placed member of Obama’s team be called to account for leaks that were clearly intended to puff the president’s reputation.
Some are saying that conservatives who blasted the president for the leaks last year and who today are decrying the infringement of press freedom are being hypocritical. But the problem here is not whether the president’s critics are trying to have it both ways on the issue. Based on what we know today, if anyone has played the hypocrite on both security and press freedom, it is the president and his cronies.
The first point is that the crackdown on leaks has been selective. While some draconian prosecutions have brought some results, we’ve yet to see anyone in the administration called to account about those leaks that made the president look good, such as the ones about the pursuit of Osama bin Laden or the Stuxnet virus that was used against Iran.
The administration has been eager to employ aggressive tactics, such as the AP phone records grab, that are so vague that the only tangible effect that we can be sure of is that they have sent a message to journalists—and even more importantly to potential whistleblowers—that they won’t be allowed to do their jobs in safety. The expansive nature of this order undermines any notion that the feds have definite leads. Until we see a press conference from Holder or one of his deputies announcing that a high-profile Obama administration figure is being prosecuted for planting flattering stories about the president, we’ll have to conclude that the leak investigations are more about press intimidation than plugging up an unauthorized disclosure of vital secrets.
White House spokesman Jay Carney tried to tap dance his way out of questions about this scandalous attack on the press this afternoon by claiming ignorance and that it would be inappropriate for the president to comment. But the only reasonable conclusion we can draw at this moment is that this is an administration with two key priorities: promoting itself via friendly stories in the press and exercising and growing its power to intimidate the press.