Leaks, Media Double Standards and the CIA Run Amok

The Wall Street Journal had an excellent editorial yesterday on the subject of leaks which is worth quoting at length:

Fired CIA officer Mary O. McCarthy went on offense Monday, denying through her lawyer that she has done anything wrong. But the agency is standing by its claim that she was dismissed last week because she "knowingly and willfully shared classified intelligence." It has been reported that one of her media contacts was Washington Post reporter Dana Priest, who just won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on the so-called "secret" prisons that the CIA allegedly used to house top level al Qaeda detainees in Eastern Europe.

We're as curious as anyone to see how Ms. McCarthy's case unfolds. But this would appear to be only the latest example of the unseemly symbiosis between elements of the press corps and a cabal of partisan bureaucrats at the CIA and elsewhere in the "intelligence community" who have been trying to undermine the Bush Presidency. [...]

The case of Ms. McCarthy appears to be as egregious as it gets as a matter of partisan politics. She played a prominent role in the Clinton national security apparatus and public records show she gave $2,000 to John Kerry's Presidential campaign and even more to the Democratic Party. Such is her right. But rather than salute and help implement policy after her candidate lost, she apparently sought to damage the Bush Administration by canoodling with the press.

There is little doubt that the Washington Post story on alleged prisons in Europe has done enormous damage--at a minimum, to our ability to secure future cooperation in the war on terror from countries that don't want their assistance to be exposed. Likewise, the New York Times wiretapping exposé may have ruined one of our most effective anti-al Qaeda surveillance programs. Ms. McCarthy denies being the source of these stories. But somebody inside the intelligence community was.

Leaving partisanship aside, this ought to be deeply troubling to anyone who cares about democratic government. The CIA leakers are arrogating to themselves the right to subvert the policy of a twice-elected Administration. Paul Pillar, another former CIA analyst well known for opposing Mr. Bush while he was at Langley, appears to think this is as it should be. He recently wrote in Foreign Affairs that the intelligence community should be treated like the Federal Reserve and have independent political status. In other words, the intelligence community should be a sort of clerisy accountable to no one.

CIA Director Porter Goss is now facing press criticism for trying to impose some discipline on his agency. But he not only has every right to try to root out insubordination, he has a duty to do so because it undermines the agency's ability to focus on the real enemy. The serious and disturbing question is whether the rot is so deep that it is unfixable, and we ought to start all over and create a new intelligence agency.

The press is also inventing a preposterous double standard that is supposed to help us all distinguish between bad leaks (the Plame name) and virtuous leaks (whatever Ms. McCarthy might have done). Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie has put himself on record as saying Ms. McCarthy should not "come to harm" for helping citizens hold their government accountable. Of the Plame affair, by contrast, the Post's editorial page said her exposure may have been an "egregious abuse of the public trust."

It would appear that the only relevant difference here is whose political ox is being gored, and whether a liberal or conservative journalist was the beneficiary of the leak. That the press sought to hound Robert Novak out of polite society for the Plame disclosure and then rewards Ms. Priest and Mr. Risen with Pulitzers proves the worst that any critic has ever said about media bias.

The deepest damage from these leak frenzies may yet be to the press itself, both in credibility and its ability to do its job. It was the press that unleashed anti-leak search missions aimed at the White House that have seen Judith Miller jailed and may find Ms. Priest and Mr. Risen facing subpoenas. And it was the press that promoted the probe under the rarely used Espionage Act of "neocon" Defense Department employee Lawrence Franklin, only to find that the same law may now be used against its own "whistleblower" sources. Just recently has the press begun to notice that the use of the same Espionage Act to prosecute two pro-Israel lobbyists for repeating classified information isn't much different from prosecuting someone for what the press does every day--except for a far larger audience.
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013