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The U.S. Justice Department is facing harsh criticism for allegedly collecting phone records of journalists to ferret out a leaker. The Associated Press says the department gathered two months’ worth of phone logs that list outgoing calls made by writers and editors. The move is reportedly part of an ongoing investigation into leaks of classified information. We examine the fallout and implications for the media and the government.
- Thomas Blanton Director, National Security Archive at George Washington University
- Lucy Dalglish Dean, Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland; former Executive Director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, garden tips for unpredictable and extreme weather. But first, the Justice Department, the Associated Press and a growing controversy over national security leaks.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis much we know, on May 7, 2012, the Associated Press published an article about a foiled al-Qaida plot to bomb an airliner. The article caused a stir across Washington and triggered a broad investigation into highly classified information ended up in the hands of reporters.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis week, the Justice Department notified the Associated Press that it had secretly seized two months of journalists phone records, covering 20 phone numbers in five area codes and three states. Eric Holder, the Attorney General, yesterday defended those aggressive tactics, describing the leak as one of the most serious breaches he'd ever seen.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMedia organizations have a different take. They say it's an unprecedented attack on press freedom and a dangerous precedent that could erode the relationship between reporters and government sources. Joining us to discuss all of this is Thomas Blanton. He is director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Tom Blanton, good to see you. thank you for joining us.
MR. THOMAS BLANTONPleasure to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Lucy Dalglish. She is dean of the Philip Morrow College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Lucy Dalglish, thank you for joining us.
MS. LUCY DALGLISHWell, thank you for having me.
NNAMDIIf you have comments or questions the number is 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Tom, as we speak Attorney General Eric Holder is testifying before the House Judiciary Committee about this investigation but yesterday he referred to the original AP story as one of the two or three most serious leaks he'd ever seen. What exactly did that AP report on May 7 of 2012 reveal?
BLANTONWell, it revealed that the government successfully thwarted a new al-Qaida and Yemen plot to produce a new undetectable underwear bomb like the ones that had previously failed to blow up jetliners. So there was a real damage, real potential damage to American citizens and to national security no question about it.
BLANTONBut there's two competing narratives happening here. The government says that AP story was a huge blow to national security and incredibly damaging. The Associated Press says from their conversations with the White House and top national security officials, the White House was going to announce the thwarted plot the next day because the government wanted to inform the people and obviously take credit for it.
BLANTONSo how much of a real terrible leak it was is all bound up in some briefings that were then by administration officials later and the words insider control was used, signifying there was some kind inside asset who's cover and effect was blown. And if that's the case then the government's got quite an argument to make.
BLANTONWell, this media coverage and all this discussion by officials blew a chance for us to thwart some other plots. And on the other hand I think the very strongly Associated Press version of the story is no, they were going to take credit for it anyway. The public has a right to know and we got assurances from officials who should know that writing our story would not damage national security.
NNAMDISo the government is saying that the press might have compromised an important security internal asset and we can all understand how dangerous that might be but why don't they say that?
BLANTONThey, that's what Holder the Attorney General kind of said yesterday, okay, here's one of the two or three most damaging leaks I've ever seen. I think and you got to read between the lines, this is a real Washington story because as you know, Kojo, the reporters are talking to national security officials everyday on an hourly basis.
BLANTONThere's a dialogue that's happening there and there's a lot of people inside government who don't like that, who would like to shut down that dialogue. Who would like to chill is the 1st Amendment term, chill that discussion.
BLANTONFrom the point of view of American citizens I think we want as much of that dialogue to happen as possibly can because it's one of the few pieces of accountability we have out of, on a huge national security establishment that's got the power to reach across the globe and kill an American citizen in Yemen.
BLANTONSo if you don't have the back and forth, and what the Associated Press has said, we had a ton of that back and forth and we even held up publication of our story because the government asked us to. And we didn't go with it until the government was going to announce it ourselves. To me that's a good practice, that's good journalism, that's good dialogue.
BLANTONIt raises the level of accountability closer to where it needs to be. What this kind of vacuum cleaner Hoovering of all the 20 phone lines does though is directly attack the free press which is one of the core values that supposedly our intelligence community is trying to defend. It's a huge blow.
NNAMDILucy Dalglish, given the nature of the original story and the sensitive nature of the investigation there's a lot that we don't know at this point but from what we do know this appears to fit a pattern of an Obama White House that very aggressively pursues people within the government who leak or blow the whistle by talking to journalists.
NNAMDIThe AP learned this week that the Justice Department had, as I said earlier, seized phone records for three of its offices. You've said this is unprecedented. Why is it so alarming?
DALGLISHWell, it's unprecedented in that in the past they, the Justice Department has really used more of a surgical strike. They have gone after a phone number or two on occasion. This was really a dragnet and this went to the core news operations of one of the world's leading news organizations and they went in, they got 20 different numbers, they got cell phone records, they got home records, they got office records and they intruded into the news gathering capacity over a large segment of one of the world's leading news organizations and the threat to the independence of those news gathering operations is really, really unprecedented.
NNAMDIIn other words, rather than a surgical strike as the analogy here, this seems more like a fishing expedition.
DALGLISHIt seems like a fishing expedition to me. You know, usually what they would do in a situation like this is they would say, oh okay a particular piece of information was leaked. Let's look at who would've had access to that information.
DALGLISHThey would go back and say, all right, these 10 people would've been in a position to know that, then they would kind of backtrack and then also identify a reporter or two and see if they could make the records mesh. This is like throwing, you know, a big paintball at a wall and seeing how it's going to splat.
NNAMDITom, leakers and whistle blowers have always played an important role in casting sunlight on the inner workings of government but they can also be very damaging. One reason why this seems to have triggered such outrage is that it seems to fit a pattern of behavior by the Obama Justice Department, right?
BLANTONWell, it's interesting, Kojo, because you just said two different phrases in those last questions. You said, in your question to Lucy, you said does this fit a pattern the Obama White House going after whistle blowers? And what you just said to me was the Obama Justice Department. And what's interesting right there is a real contradiction because you got the White House saying, and even the Attorney General saying, sorry, I'm not involved, hands off. I'm not pursuing those whistle blowers, I'm not for these leaks investigations. It's almost as if a lesson we learned under President Nixon, who intervened in prosecutions left and right back when you first coming to town, Kojo.
BLANTONRight. He called in Justice Department prosecutors and targeted them on enemies, political enemies. Well, we put a bunch of walls between that political influence and the career prosecutors and we may have gone too far.
BLANTONBecause now it looks like there's no adult supervision over the Justice Department. As Lucy says, this was a dragnet, a vacuum cleaner approach when maybe a surgical strike is called for. What I suspect is going on is because you've got the Attorney General saying this is a really damaging leak, because the government's got this narrative about a blown asset and American's at risk, the people inside the intelligence community and it's a constant debate inside the government, the people who want to be more open, more accountable, more transparent and I think for the most part, that includes President Obama.
BLANTONFirst and foremost from day one, we're having a debate with the folks who are the culture of secrecy, the people who ran the Cold War all and got to cover their rear ends left and right with these shrouds of secrecy. Those folks want to chill the press, those folks want those AP reporters not to be able to reach anybody in the government.
BLANTONI think it's self-defeating because you end up then, your shrouds of secrecy cover scandals and abuse. That's the story we've found over years and years of those operations. We need more good reporting, we need actually more dialogue like the Associated Press had with the White House and the CIA, not less. And this action is going make for less, no question.
NNAMDIHere is David in Fair Oaks, Va. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDThank you very much. My comment is this and that is, what did the media expect from the Obama administration? I mean, they have a long track record of going after organizations that try to release information and they have an equally long track record of trying to cover up scandals.
DAVIDI mean, starting with "Fast and Furious" we still don't know what are in the documents that the president claimed executive privilege over. We don't even have a list of the documents he's claiming executive privilege over. We had the same thing with the issues in Benghazi with the talking points around this stupid video that they claimed was the reason that we had al-Qaida assault on the consult in Benghazi.
DAVIDWe now have the IRS coming out and telling us that they were targeting conservative groups. What makes the media think that they were ever going to be outside the realm of a target of the Obama administration? Thank you.
NNAMDIWell, there are, you said a lot of things in there, David, and there is still some debate over both Benghazi and the IRS and the level of the administration's involvement in stuff. There's the Benghazi Consult CIA connection, there is the IRS...
BLANTONWhich is the great untold story so far, I think.
NNAMDIExactly right, and the IRS connection to the White House has not been made clear at this point at all but I'm just interested in hearing your responses to what our caller set down.
BLANTONI think it's more, and Lucy may agree, I think it's more there's a group of prosecutors at Justice Department who over the last, not just under the Obama Justice Department, but starting under the late Bush. Using the new digital technologies that allowed them to sweep up and analyze far more records than they ever had before and even without warrants, just things like national security letters or the like.
BLANTONWe're beginning to get a handle how to attack leakers by going after them legally under a terrible statute called the Espionage Act that dates back to Woodrow Wilson and that's the felony charges. They're using it against whistle blowers like Thomas Drake.
BLANTONThe government and these career folks began to be able to use these new technologies to go after leakers in ways they hadn't been able to do before and, I think, Lucy herself tells an amazing story about national security officials saying, you know we don't need warrants anymore guys.
DALGLISHWell, you know, five, six years ago we had quite a few subpoenas of reporters where they were trying, the old way you would do it, you've got a leaker, you try to figure out who the reporter, who the reporter spoke to. So you would put the reporter in front of a grand jury and say, hey who are you talking to.
DALGLISHAnd, of course, the reporter's typically not going to tell you. Well, technology has now allowed them to bypass the reporter. Notice, they have not subpoenaed any of these reporters at the AP to testify. It would be pointless. But now technology allows you, when you have a large scale leak to go back and electronically track everything a reporter did.
DALGLISHAfter the wikileaks situation I had a conversation with a couple of national security people who said, you know, kind of almost maliciously, hey you're never going to see us subpoena on a reporter again. We don't need to talk to you, we know who you're talking to. And this is a further example of how they're using all of these communications and digital technology to bypass having the conversation with the reporter and go after the whistle blowers using the technology that they have developed.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISome would say...
DALGLISHI mean, my first question in addition to the telephone records were, well did they have the credit card receipts, the airplane tickets? Did they have everything else? Do they know where they've been banking? Do they -- you know, do they have their hotel...
NNAMDIYou're scaring me. You're scaring me. This is the scary side of big data. We got -- some advocates are hoping that this controversy might revive interests in a so-called media shield law, Lucy and Tom, which would create a legal framework for reporters to refuse to identify their sources. The New York Times is reporting today that the Obama Administration senate liaison has approached Democratic Senator Charles Schumer about reviving his legislation, which would allow journalists to ask a federal judge to quash subpoenas for their phone records. What do you think, Lucy?
DALGLISHWell, I -- that sounds really, really good, but having been involved in some of these negotiations the last time we did all of this, the Obama Administration was willing to basically agree to a shield law. But there were all of these really drastic exceptions. They said, oh unless we decide you can't protect somebody, unless national security is involved or something like that.
DALGLISHSo they are -- you know, I hope they've changed their mind, but the last approach they signed off on would not have done much good in this particular situation.
NNAMDIWhat do you think, Tom Blanton?
BLANTONI think it's a classic case of the government's not a monolith. There's no such thing as the Obama Administration as a giant guiding the whole thing. In fact, you have multiple motivations and incentives. You look at the president and his day-one declarations on openness, the getting rid of the Bush rules on secrecy, getting rid of the Bush rules on the torture program, releasing the torture memos, declassifying the intelligence budget, declassifying the national security, the nuclear weapons stockpile, ordering review of the classification.
BLANTONI mean, he's done so many historic kind of open -- his recent open data initiative, his directive that all publicly funded research has got to be publicly open to access. This is terrific stuff. He deserves credit. He doesn't get any credit. And one of the reasons he doesn't get any credit, he's got some pit bull prosecutors in the Department of Justice who are chasing reporters and doing Hoover vacuum cleaner sweet ups of 20 phone lines in the name of protecting our national security, when actually they're trampling on our core values. And that's the free press in a Democratic society.
NNAMDIThomas Blanton is director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Lucy Dalglish is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. She's the former executive director of Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press. "The Diane Rehm Show" will be discussing this topic tomorrow in its 10:00 to 11:00 am hour. You can also share your thoughts with us during "Your Turn" on this broadcast tomorrow at 1:00 pm. Tom Blanton, Lucy Dalglish, thank you both for joining us.
BLANTONThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, gardening tips for unpredictable and extreme weather. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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