As of late the Obama administration has come under increasing pressure from journalists to justify its handling of national security leaks. Alongside these concerns is a broader debate on whether or not press leaks endanger national security, and if so, how can it be proven?
The Obama administration has indicted more whistle-blowers than any other presidency in history – six to be exact. Recently, there has been significant press coverage of the AP leaks scandal; many opinions have been stated in the past few weeks, but there are some things to keep in mind before diving into any conclusions. First, allow me to give a brief overview of what exactly happened.
On May 7, 2012, the Associated Press (AP) released a story that the CIA had broken up a plot to bomb a US-bound airliner in Yemen about one week prior. The AP had known about the operation around the same time that it had occurred, but was asked by government officials to hold the release of the story until the plot was officially undermined.
Once seizure of the bomb and the suspect had occurred, the AP released the story without regard to the Obama administration’s requests to publish the story a day later once the White House had made an official announcement.
Later in the day on May 7, John Brennan (who at the time was the White House counter-terrorism adviser) conducted a conference with the press. In that conference he had stated that the plot was never dangerously close to being carried out and that the U.S. government had “inside control” within the plot.
Once Brennan had given the conference, speculation among the media led to the conclusion that there was an inside informant within the ranks of an al Qaeda branch in the Arabian Peninsula. This speculation eventually led to the exposure of almost the entire CIA operation and made the future use of the informant impossible.
In reaction to all of this, the Justice Department has seized phone records from 20 lines at multiple AP offices. Now the question that must be answered is did this story released by the AP damage national security?
In order to answer this question, one must understand the great complexities of the matter and realize that measuring the impact of a news leak is an imperfect science that is bound to be stretched and manipulated by each party to prove ones point. In the case of the Associated Press, the U.S. government made their case much weaker when John Brennan announced that there was “inside control,” and on top of that there is no available proof that the informant was giving security officials any additional leads regarding al Qaeda leadership.
As it will be difficult for the government to prove the Associated Press damaged national security, it is unlikely this will hold up in court. In order to prove this, they would more than likely have to give up current clandestine operations in order to verify that they were damaged by the report.
The Obama administration went through the District of Columbia’s federal court to obtain the subpoena for the AP case, a court that has a history of being rather hard on leak cases. Even though this may be the case, I believe that the AP will still come out on top of the administration if they decide to go along and press charges against the Associated Press.
The AP will argue that they did not report that there was a CIA source within the al Qaeda branch and that it was Brennan who broke that news. The administration will claim that they had Brennan come forth with this information because they knew their cover would be blown by the press regardless if he did or not. When it comes down to it, the speculation on the part of the Obama team is not definite and will not hold up in any court.
I don’t see any surprise evidence being brought forth by prosecutors and by weighing all the evidence in the case, there is simply not enough to convict anybody in the AP for this case.
So as of right now, I would have to come to the conclusion that the AP did not damage national security for reasons of it being immeasurable with the current information provided to the public. Unless the government can bring brand new claims against them, there is no base to further prosecute anyone involved.