A bipartisan dispute has emerged on Capitol Hill over how to investigate a series of national security leaks, including disclosures about President Obama’s secret "kill list" as well as the U.S.-Israeli use of cyberweapons to target Iran’s nuclear program. Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed two prosecutors to head a probe into the leaks, but Republicans have criticized him for refusing to appoint an independent special counsel. Some analysts question if this is truly a case of whistleblowing, in the public interest, or a case of covertly authorized leaking for political gain. Government accountability groups are waiting to see how vigorously the Obama administration will pursue those responsible for the leaks, especially given its aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers in the past. We speak to former Justice Department whistleblower Jesselyn Radack. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A bipartisan dispute has emerged on Capitol Hill over how to investigate a series of national security leaks, including disclosures about President Obama’s secret "kill list" as well as the U.S.-Israeli use of cyberweapons to target Iran’s nuclear program. Details of both stories appeared in the New York Times. Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed two prosecutors to head a probe into the leaks, but Republicans have criticized him for refusing to appoint an independent special counsel. This is Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Here we are with a very serious breach of national security—in the view of some, the most serious in recent history—and it clearly cries out for the appointment of a special counsel. It obviously is one of the highest breaches of security that this country has ever seen.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, Democrats have rejected such calls, saying the two U.S. attorneys that Holder appointed last week will operate independently and fairly. On Friday, President Obama rejected suggestions the leaks may have come from his administration to bolster his re-election bid.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive. It’s wrong. And, you know, people, I think, need to have a better sense of how I approach this office and how the people around me here approach this office.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go now to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Jesselyn Radack, former ethics adviser to the U.S. Department of Justice, currently the director of National Security & Human Rights at the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower organization. Her book is called TRAITOR: The Whistleblower and the "American Taliban".
Jesselyn Radack, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of these calls for an investigation into security leaks. What are the leaks, and what is motivating the calls?
JESSELYN RADACK: Well, I think an election year is motivating the calls for investigation. I think the leaks that we’re talking about deal with everything from the Osama bin Laden raid to information and operational details about a virus, to killing an American, al-Awlaki. A number of extremely high-level leaks of classified information, which includes sources and methods, has hit the front pages of major newspapers in this country. Yet the administration has been engaged in a brutal crackdown on so-called leakers who, more often than not, are whistleblowers over the past two years. So while I am gratified that Congress is finally paying attention to the hypocrisy of that course of action—that being the government leaking like a sieve while going after people who have actually made legitimate disclosures of fraud, waste, abuse and illegality—I don’t know if having more leak prosecutions is really the right answer here.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, back in 2000, there was an attempt to pass legislation in Congress about leaking. Could you talk about the dangers at that time and the decision of President Clinton to veto that legislation?
JESSELYN RADACK: Absolutely. Back in 2000, Congress did debate behind closed doors and passed, by a voice vote, broad anti-leak legislation that would criminalize the leaking of any classified information. And at the time, President Clinton wisely vetoed that because, in President Clinton’s words, it would "unnecessarily chill legitimate activity ... at the heart of a democracy." Now, fast-forward ahead, and the only thing between 2000 and today is 9/11. And I don’t think we should let 9/11 take away what’s at the heart of a free and democratic society. I also think that all these leak investigations—I mean, the answer is not to have even more leak investigations. The answer is to take a serious look at what the administration discloses, both good and bad, which should be out there for public debate.
AMY GOODMAN: Republican Congressmember Mike Rogers of Michigan, the House Intelligence Committee chair, said it was not yet known who’s behind the recent leaks, but that someone, quote, "committed a crime that is having serious consequences to our national security."
REP. MIKE ROGERS: [The committee has material] suggesting that the agencies were directed to expand the scope of classified information they gave to the press. We know, in some cases, someone from a segment of the media was present in a classified setting. Recently, a group of intelligence officers, as I said before, has disclosed directly how many of the leaks over a period of years have made their jobs more difficult in their liaison relationships and their ability to interact with sources and assets around the world who are doing great things for their own countries and the United States, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Republican Congressmember Mike Rogers of Michigan, head of House Intelligence Committee. Jesselyn Radack, the difference between politically motivated leaks and whistleblowing? The Republicans seem to be most concerned that these leaks are making President Obama look too good.
JESSELYN RADACK: Yeah, I think the leaks, the, quote, "authorized leaks," which is an oxymoron, are being done for political gain. Obviously, we don’t need to know—and whether it’s the newspaper or Hollywood—the sources and methods about the raid of Osama bin Laden. We do need to know about the policy behind the kill list and the assassination of Americans. I agree with Congress that the executive branch leaks that are being done right now are for political gain, and that’s wrong. What I’m concerned about, though, is that we could end up with a really bad anti-leaks law that ends up chilling discussion and ends up being used primarily against whistleblowers. I’m afraid that that could be the unintended consequence of all these investigations, which, in the end, I am not hopeful will really lead to any kind of accountability for anybody.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Jesselyn Radack, isn’t it a structural issue that the more our government relies on secret operations, that, therefore, the realm of possible things that could be leaked grows, just by the very nature of a move to greater authoritarianism in government activity, so that, in essence, you are creating a problem that you then want to criminalize people for opposing?
JESSELYN RADACK: Well, that is an excellent point and another reason that passing a broad anti-leak law would be so dangerous. Obviously, under the Bush administration, overclassification was a huge problem. But during Obama’s first year in office, classification increased by 40 percent. He classified 77 million more documents in his first year, making it even more likely that people could leak or disclose classified information. And I think the real issue here is a failure to distinguish between classified information that has not been properly classified, that is being used to hide illegality, mistakes or embarrassment by the administration, versus leaks that are really whistleblower disclosures of fraud, waste and abuse and illegality, which are protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act. And so far, only that latter category has been subject to prosecution. But again, while there is a hunger for just desserts in seeing the administration called out on leaking like a sieve for its own gain, I’m worried about the long-term unintended consequences that Congress could end up passing a really bad anti-leak measure that I think, in this administration, that Obama would sign.
AMY GOODMAN: Jesselyn Radack, I want to thank you for being with us, former ethics adviser to the U.S. Department of Justice, currently the director of National Security & Human Rights at the Government Accountability Project. Her new book is called TRAITOR: The Whistleblower and the "American Taliban".