Why So Many Criminal Cases Against Leakers Lately?

One of the things that has been of concern to civil libertarians about President Obama is the sharp increase in the number of criminal cases brought against leakers. In an interview with Charlie Savage (one of the journalists who has been most diligent in reporting on the President’s counterterrorism strategies and has recently published a book titled Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency), Elias Isquith reveals an interesting story about that. Here is what Savage says he learned from his research:

Obama has, by this point, overseen nine criminal cases against leakers. That’s compared with three under previous presidents — combined. There was one under Bush. I spent a lot of time going through each case, and I talked to a lot of people on the scene about where [this wave] came from. It had some bureaucratic origin in the second term of the Bush administration.

But, more fundamentally, I think it had to do with changes in technology, and how metadata can make it much easier now to see who is talking to a reporter, who also had access to the information. [Previously, during a leak investigation,] the CIA would hand over most of the files on [potential leakers], but the FBI wouldn’t be able to do anything with those. Now, they can narrow it down to which people have been in contact with the reporter who wrote the story and had access to the information…

I was looking for a meeting or a memo in which Obama himself or even [former Attorney General] Eric Holder actually and deliberately tried to set into motion this track-down [of leakers]. When there’s such a dramatic change — from three cases to nine cases — we all want there to be a central narrative, to believe that it happened on purpose. But I came to the conclusion that that didn’t exist, that it wasn’t a deliberate decision. It wasn’t something Bush did; it wasn’t something Obama did. It’s just the way the world is.

This doesn’t negate the concern completely. But it does remind us of something we need to keep in mind. Going beyond the whole Green Lantern fallacy, we often ascribe responsibility for events to the President (or Cabinet members like the Attorney General) that are actually the result of forces deep within the federal bureaucracy. It is only through the the kind of research and reporting that was done by Savage that we learn about the actual causes. Gaining that insight, we can be more effective in crafting reforms.

I am reminded of something Paul Glastris, Editor in Chief of the Washington Monthly, wrote recently about the driving force behind this publication.

The central mission of the Washington Monthly is to promote the filling of this gap. That means running pieces that attempt to discern government’s problems, not just at the level of policy-making but more broadly, as a system, and specifically, at the implementation level; that offer solutions to those problems…

That’s why you can count on us to bring you these kinds of stories.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.