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ABC News Correspondent Questions Obama Administration’s War on Whistleblowing

Give credit to Jake Tapper, senior White House correspondent for ABC News, who in a press conference today challenged the Obama Administration for celebrating aggressive journalists that have died in Syria as it simultaneously goes after similar journalism in the United States.

Tapper put up a blog post at ABC News with a video and transcript of the remarks. Read the full exchange between White House press secretary Jay Carney there.

The correspondent for ABC News set up his question on the inconsistency by noting that the White House continues to praise journalists like Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik as well as Anthony Shadid, all people killed covering the carnage in Syria recently. He then asked, “How does that square with the fact that this administration has been so aggressively trying to stop aggressive journalism in the United States by using the Espionage Act to take whistleblowers to court?”

You’re — currently I think that you’ve invoked [the Espionage Act a] sixth time, and before the Obama administration, it had only been used three times in history. You’re — this is the sixth time. You’re suing a CIA officer for allegedly providing information in 2009 about CIA torture. Certainly that’s something that’s in the public interest of the United States. The administration is taking this person to court. There just seems to be disconnect here. You want aggressive journalism abroad; you just don’t want it in the United States.

Carney’s answer to all this was typical waffling and hedging that you would expect from a press secretary for the White House. He said he would hesitate to address “any particular case.” He then offered platitudes on why it is important to support journalists putting themselves in “dangerous situations.” Then, finally, he got to saying something that resembled an answer to Tapper’s question:

I — as for other cases, again, without addressing any specific case, I think that there are issues here that involve highly sensitive classified information, and I think that, you know, those are — divulging or to — divulging that kind of information is a serious issue, and it always has been.

Then Tapper did what all members of the press corps should do on a daily basis. He challenged Carney.

TAPPER: So the truth should come out abroad; it shouldn’t come out here?

CARNEY: Well, that’s not at all what I’m saying, Jake, and you know it’s not. Again, I can’t — specific –

TAPPER: That’s what the Justice Department’s doing.

CARNEY: Well, you’re making a judgment about a broad array of cases, and I can’t address those specifically.

TAPPER: It’s also the judgment that a lot of whistleblowers’ organizations and good government groups are making as well.

CARNEY: Not one that I’m going to make.

Not wanting to address any specific cases is a bit like claiming the administration doesn’t comment on any ongoing investigations.

The most glaring problem with Carney’s indifference to the gravity of this question is that the war on whistle blowing isn’t only about whether classified information is released or not. There are journalists who are victims of this. The war is not limited to federal employees who decided to blow the whistle on crimes, misconduct or something they knew that they felt needed to be public.

The Justice Department is currently trying to make New York Times reporter James Risen reveal information on confidential sources he spoke with for a chapter from his book, State of War, which details how the CIA botched its effort to sabotage Iranian nuclear research. They want him to testify in the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former member of the CIA who is charged with leaking classified information to Risen.

The decision to force Risen to reveal information on his sources and violate “reporter’s privilege” is why ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, National Public Radio and NBC, and print media including The Associated Press, Bloomberg, Hearst, McClatchy, Newsweek, The New York Daily News, Reuters, Scripps-Howard, Time, the Tribune Company, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post are all urging a district court judge to not force Risen to testify.

Charlie Savage of the New York Times reported that a friend-of-the-court brief was filed by these media organizations along with other “good government” organizations. The brief called the protection of confidential sources essential to protecting the free flow of information to the public. They also argued “no circuit court has ever endorsed the government’s contention that the reporter’s privilege does not protect the compelled disclosure of confidential sources in criminal trials in federal courts.” [Read the full brief here.]

Even more troubling, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, according to Savage, “ruled that Mr. Risen was protected by a qualified “reporter’s privilege” that allowed her to balance whether it was necessary to force him to disclose his sources. She contended that Mr. Risen’s testimony was not crucial because prosecutors could use other evidence against Mr. Sterling.” Nonetheless, the Justice Department under the Obama Administration still remains committed to forcing Risen to reveal his confidential sources.

The impact on media organizations, if Risen is forced to testify, could be chilling. No reporter or media organization wants to be embroiled in a legal battle. A precedent allowing the government to force reporters to reveal sources would mean even more reporters and media outlets shy away from major national security stories that will inevitably draw the ire of government officials, who are upset that they are being scrutinized.

The whole war on whistleblowing gives credence to people like former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, who really have no respect for freedom of the press and support prosecuting journalists.

Here’s what Bennett said on Meet the Press in 2007.

…The American people, in fact, believe in a free press, as I do, and I don’t believe in prior restraint of the press. But the American people are saying, if you listen to them in very, very large and consistent numbers—and an awful lot of people across the board are saying this—is four times now, four times in eight months, Dana Priest’s story, the National Surveillance Security Agency monitoring story, the USA Today story about data mining. “Oh, sorry,” they tell us on Friday, “We maybe got that wrong. Our sources were wrong.”

And, it undermines the ability of good investigative journalists like the Washington Post‘s Dana Priest to do their work. Priest was on the same edition of Meet the Press as Bennett and responded to his scorn for press freedom:

It’s not a crime to publish classified information. And this is one of the things Mr. Bennett keeps telling people that it is. But, in fact, there are some narrow categories of information you can’t publish, certain signals, communications, intelligence, the names of covert operatives and nuclear secrets.

Now why isn’t it a crime? I mean, some people would like to make casino gambling a crime, but it is not a crime. Why isn’t it a crime? Because the framers of the Constitution wanted to protect the press so that they could perform a basic role in government oversight, and you can’t do that. Look at the criticism that the press got after Iraq that we did not do our job on WMD. And that was all in a classified arena.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."