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AP Case Adds To Obama Team's Tough Record On Leaks

May 17, 2013
Originally published on May 17, 2013 9:34 am

President Obama had a reputation when he took office as a liberal former constitutional lawyer who had condemned Bush-era national security policies.

But he has proven to be even tougher than President George W. Bush on prosecuting national security leaks. The seizure of Associated Press phone records is just the latest example.

The administration has prosecuted six people for giving reporters information about secret national security operations — twice as many cases as all previous presidents combined.

It's a record former Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller finds a little surprising.

"I can tell you it's not like anyone in the administration sat down and made a decision that that was going to be one of our highest priorities," Miller says.

Miller, who used to advise Attorney General Eric Holder, says government officials share a sense that there are more leaks than there used to be, and that they must be stopped.

"It has nothing to do with stopping the press from doing their job," he says. "The goal is to stop people who have taken an oath to protect national security from disclosing secrets that harm it."

Journalists' groups say that's a distinction without a difference.

To First Amendment advocates, the government's explanation is like saying: "We're not trying to prevent people from drilling for oil — we just want to keep the oil in the ground."

Lucy Dalglish, who runs the journalism school at University of Maryland, College Park, says the only reason to do this is to send a message.

"You send a message to both the media and ... to federal employees: You leak — we're going to get you," she says. "And I'm being told by reporters it's being pretty effective."

That is to say, investigative journalists report that their sources are drying up, which, they say, threatens the free press that a democracy depends on.

The administration insists that it values both press freedoms and national security. This week, the White House said it supports a federal shield law for journalists. In a single news briefing, spokesman Jay Carney used the word "balance" 16 times to describe the president's views.

"He does believe that we need to take measures to ensure that the media can pursue investigative journalism in an unfettered way," he said. "And we have to balance that goal with the very real national security interests that we have as a nation."

In fact, the White House may have little to do with where the administration ultimately strikes this balance. The most important decisions are made within the Department of Justice, says Pat Rowan, who worked there for nearly 20 years, including as head of the National Security Division.

"It's possible that administration officials are talking to the highest levels of DOJ and saying, 'We've got to do something about these leaks. These leaks are killing us.' But thereafter, it's really up to the Department of Justice, the FBI and the prosecutors to put these cases together," he says.

Within the Justice Department, decisions in these cases almost always go to the attorney general himself, unless he is recused, as he was in the AP case.

NPR's Carrie Johnson asked Holder this week how often he has ordered prosecutors to seize reporters' records.

"I'm not sure how many of those cases that I have actually signed off on," he answered. "I take them very seriously. I know that I have refused to sign a few — pushed a few back for modifications."

Regardless, there has been a spike in numbers.

Some of these cases were holdovers from the Bush administration. Investigating national security leaks takes a long time, Rowan says. "When all's said and done, it could be years between when the investigation began and when the case is actually brought out into the open through the filing of charges."

But everybody seems to agree on one key reason the numbers have gone up. As Rowan puts it: "I do think some of these cases are easier to make than ever."

Rowan says technology makes it easier to leak — and easier to get caught.

Miller, the former Justice Department spokesman, agrees.

"As with every crime, people leave more digital footprints today than they used to," he says.

Dalglish, who used to run the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says she has been giving journalists this advice for years: "Technology is not your friend."

"If you have a source that you need to protect, stay off the Internet, stay off the phone, don't use your credit card," she explains.

Instead, she says, talk to your sources like spies do on TV — on a park bench, face to face.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On a Friday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're going to dwell, for a few moments, on President Obama's pursuit of whistleblowers and news leaks. The administration practice gained wide public attention when the Associated Press discovered prosecutors secretly obtained the phone records of as many as 100 reporters. The AP believes prosecutors are searching for the source of an AP story on a foiled terror plot. That news comes after years of other administration efforts to plug leaks. The administration has gone after a CIA agent who revealed details about torture, a State Department analyst who allegedly revealed information about North Korea and others.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This administration has prosecuted six people for giving reporters information about secret national security operations. That's twice as many cases as all previous presidents combined - a record that former Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller finds a little surprising.

MATT MILLER: I can tell you, it's not like anyone in the administration sat down and made a decision that that was going to be one of our highest priorities.

SHAPIRO: Miller used to advise Attorney General Eric Holder. And he says government officials share a sense that there are more leaks than there used to be, which must be stopped.

MILLER: It has nothing to do with stopping the press from doing their job. The goal is to stop people who have taken an oath to protect national security from disclosing secrets that harm it.

SHAPIRO: Journalists' groups say that's a distinction without a difference.

To First Amendment advocates, the government's explanation is like saying: We're not trying to prevent people from drilling for oil - we just want to keep the oil in the ground.

Lucy Dalglish runs the journalism school at University of Maryland, College Park.

LUCY DALGLISH: You only do this to send a message. You send a message to both the media and you send a message to federal employees: You leak - we're going to get you. And I'm being told by reporters it's being pretty effective.

SHAPIRO: That is to say, investigative journalists report that their sources are drying up - which, they say, threatens the free press that a democracy depends on. The administration insists that it values both press freedoms and national security. This week, the White House said it supports a federal shield law for journalists.

In a single press briefing, spokesman Jay Carney used the word balance 16 times to describe the president's views.

JAY CARNEY: He does believe that we need to take measures to ensure that the media can pursue investigative journalism in an unfettered way. And we have to balance that goal with the very real national security interests that we have as a nation.

SHAPIRO: In fact, the White House may have little to do with where the administration ultimately strikes this balance. The most important decisions are made within the Department of Justice, says Pat Rowan. He worked at DOJ for nearly 20 years, including as head of the National Security Division.

PAT ROWAN: It's possible that administration officials are talking to the highest levels of DOJ and saying, we've got to do something about these leaks. These leaks are killing us. But thereafter, it's really up to the Department of Justice, the FBI and the prosecutors to put these cases together.

SHAPIRO: Within Justice, decisions in these cases almost always go to the attorney general himself, unless he's recused, as he was in the Associated Press case.

On this program, NPR's Carrie Johnson asked Attorney General Eric Holder how often he has ordered prosecutors to seize reporters' records.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: I'm not sure how many of those cases that I have actually signed off on. I take them very seriously. I know that I have refused to sign a few - pushed a few back for modifications.

SHAPIRO: Regardless, there's been a spike in numbers. Some of these cases were holdovers from the Bush administration. Investigating national security leaks takes a long time, says Pat Rowan.

ROWAN: When all's said and done, it could be years between when the investigation began and when the case is actually brought out into the open through the filing of charges.

SHAPIRO: But everybody seems to agree on one key reason the numbers have gone up.

ROWAN: I do think some of these cases are easier to make than ever.

SHAPIRO: Rowan says technology makes it easier to leak, and easier to get caught.

Former Justice Spokesman Miller agrees.

MILLER: As with every crime, people leave more digital footprints today than they used to.

SHAPIRO: Lucy Dalglish, who used to run the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, says she's been giving journalists this advice for years.

DALGLISH: Technology is not your friend. If you have a source that you need to protect, stay off the Internet, stay off the phone, don't use your credit cards.

SHAPIRO: Instead, she says, talk to your sources like spies do on TV - on a park bench, face-to-face.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.