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“Authorized” vs. “Unauthorized” Leaks

January 25, 2013
Robert Shetterly's portrait of John Kiriakou.

Robert Shetterly’s portrait of John Kiriakou.

Over four years have passed since President Obama ushered in his first term by vowing to make his administration the most transparent in history. Despite this promise –in the “national security arena,” at least– we face a more secret environment than before, as evidenced by John Kiriakou’s sentencing in federal court today for unauthorized disclosure of information to a reporter. Rather than declassifying and disclosing more information, we face a situation where the Obama administration has created new avenues for releasing only its chosen information, while simultaneously eroding traditional lines of declassification and reporting.   

As has been widely reported, John Kiriakou was sentenced under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act this morning for charges of unauthorized disclosure of a covert officer’s identity and other classified information, and lying to CIA’s Publications Review Board. Kiriakou has joined a growing list of whistleblowers imprisoned for disclosing information to the press, a common method of information sharing in Washington. According to Gabriel Schoenfeld, a conservative political scientist who argues for more vigorous protection of classified information, “Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history—even more so than Nixon.

While prosecuting more whistleblowers than any other in history, in some ways the administration has simultaneously been remarkably open about its most sensitive activities. The administration provided unprecedented access on the raid to capture Osama bin Laden, arguably the most secretive military operation in decades – though these disclosures were only made to blockbuster filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal. The public, on the other hand, has had to utilize FOIA lawsuits to receive a fraction of that access. What’s more, the administration alludes to the military’s use of drones in press conferences after successful missions in Afghanistan in Pakistan, though it has released almost no documents on the unmanned aircraft, their attacks, or their justifications.

Kiriakou leaving the federal courthouse in Alexandria, VA, on January 23, 2012.

Kiriakou leaving the federal courthouse in Alexandria, VA, on January 23, 2012.

It is true that some of the information Kiriakou revealed made its way to high-value terrorist detainees at Guantanamo, and this, in Kiriakou’s own words, is “terrifying.” (It could be argued that Assistant United States Attorney General John Durham should have revealed the identities of these “dark side” operatives –and prosecuted them).  However, the unprecedented number of cases the Department of Justice has brought against whistleblowers for truth-telling, the subsequent intimidation of journalists, and the administration’s dubious method of releasing selective pellets of its most sensitive material, is equally frightening.

As Obama begins his second term, it’s time to ask if his administration is truly reflecting the democratic principles of open society and transparency it promised to promote four years ago.  The answer seems to be no, not when the government spends more effort prosecuting whistleblowers than torturers, not when Hollywood gets the first crack at the most sensitive government documents of our time, and certainly not when the only person the government has prosecuted in connection with its torture program is John Kiriakou – the same man who refused to be trained in enhanced interrogation techniques and condemned waterboarding – for revealing the extent of our nation’s torture program.

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