Words of wisdom from Walter Pincus on national security leaks to the media

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

Walter Pincus, the National Security reporter for the Washington Post, is a consummate professional, one of a diminishing class of reporters whom I respect and admire for his body of work.

Any time the media is at the center of a controversy, they can do no wrong in their view. They posssess an absolutist view of the First Amendment right of a free press. No limitations should ever apply to the media. But as we all know, the rights secured by the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment right of a free press, come with limitations. Nothing is absolute. Especially when it endangers national security, methods and sources, and puts people's lives at risk.

Walter Pincus offers his words of wisdom on national security leaks to the media today. Will his media colleagues listen? Fine Print: The press and national security :

Whoever provided the initial leak to the Associated Press in April
2012 not only broke the law but caused the abrupt end to a secret, joint
U.S./Saudi/British operation in Yemen that offered valuable
intelligence against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
.

One goal was to get AQAP’s operational head, Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso. That happened one day before the AP story appeared.

A second goal was to find and possibly kill AQAP bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri . . .

The drone attack that killed Quso hadn’t occurred when AP reporters
were checking out the leak and contacting government officials. Acting
responsibly, the AP withheld its story for several days at the
government’s request. Lives were at stake, officials said.

What
happened afterward illustrates a sad state of affairs — within
government (which can’t control critical secrets), the White House
(which offered more information to shield itself from a wrong impression
created by the AP story), politics (where every event during a
presidential race becomes political fodder) and the press (which screams
First Amendment at any attempt to investigate it).

There is a natural tension between journalists and the government
over national security. There are many examples of administrations
misusing secrecy to hide failures or promote successes. And there may be
as many times when bad stories hurt clandestine operations.

Hitting
targets in the United States is one of AQAP’s goals. In association
with Saudi intelligence, the CIA inserted a Saudi who convinced AQAP
that he wanted to be a suicide bomber. Eventually he was outfitted with
Asiri’s newest device, which he was to use on a U.S. aircraft. After the
device was delivered to U.S. officials, someone or several people
leaked the information to the AP.

As journalists and politicians
focus on what they say are too-broad subpoenas for records of 21 phone
lines for AP offices and individuals, what’s lost is the damaging and
criminal leak
.

* * *

The AP was working on a story where lives really could be at risk.
Also at risk were the relationships between U.S., Saudi and British
intelligence
.

The AP responsibly held its story for five days when
informed of national security issues. Although the news organization
was informed about only part of the operation, the reality was that
intelligence officials believed it had to be closed down immediately.

The AP story, when it first appeared, made no mention of how the United
States obtained the new type of bomb. But by describing the event as the
CIA halting an AQAP suicide-bombing plot, the story turned a clever
clandestine operation into a negative political issue for the White
House during the presidential campaign.

How? The AP story tied the foiling of an AQAP plot to White House
press secretary Jay Carney’s statement the week before that assured “the
American public that [the administration] knew of no al-Qaeda plots
against the U.S. around the anniversary of bin Laden’s death.” The AP
story implied that Carney’s statement was untrue. But Carney was right.
This was a CIA ruse, not a terrorist-initiated plot.

Even during a “Face the Nation” appearance Sunday, AP President
Gary Pruitt described the AP story as the United States thwarting “an
al-Qaeda plot to place a bomb on an airliner” and Carney as being
“misleading to the American public.”

From the start, the AP had placed the plot in the wrong context.

[And it is the AP and First Amendment absolutists who are misleading the public.]

* * *

It was inevitable that the leak to the AP would
generate an FBI probe
. Given past leak investigations in the Bush and
Obama administrations, journalists at the AP and elsewhere know they
could face scrutiny. Like it or not, they are part of a crime. The
leaker or leakers had taken an oath under the threat of prosecution to
protect the information.

The current probe, after almost a year of
exhausting other avenues, followed Justice Department guidelines and
issued grand jury subpoenas for AP phone records
. Did they overreach?
There were five reporters and one editor listed on the initial story
working out of different AP offices.

Should the AP have been told in advance so it could try to quash the
subpoenas? It could delay the inquiry possibly for years if the AP went
to court.

Having found my phone records caught up in criminal and
civil case probes, such actions from government officials should not be a
surprise.

But how many times can the media claim such an action
is “chilling sources?”
That was a claim during the Valerie Plame case
under the Bush administration and repeatedly invoked as the Obama
Justice Department has pursued leakers.

The risk of breaking the
law apparently didn’t chill those who leaked the information to the AP.
That’s what should be considered chilling.

The reality is that
this is not a whistleblowing case
. There are no heroes here, and the
press in this instance was not protecting individuals trying to expose
government malfeasance
.

The reporters were trying to be first to report a story, which is not a legitimate goal unto itself, and they undermined methods and sources in this clandestine operation. People's lives were put at risk.

With great power comes great responsibility. The media today all too often is reckless and irresponsible.

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