A Hard Line on Leaks

Politico has an interesting story on the Obama Administration’s aggressive legal efforts against government leakers.

In just over two years since President Barack Obama took office, prosecutors have filed criminal charges in five separate cases involving unauthorized distribution of classified national security information to the media. And the government is now mulling what would be the most high-profile case of them all – prosecuting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

That’s a sharp break from recent history, when the U.S. government brought such cases on three occasions in roughly 40 years.

The story makes the “gotcha” point that these efforts are in tension with the Administration’s promise of greater openness and transparency. Yet it’s not entirely clear if the increase is due to a change in policy.

It’s hard to say how much of the campaign to punish leakers stems from the current administration’s desire to make it a priority and how much stems simply from the glacial-paced investigation of cases left over from Bush’s term. Two of the five prosecutions brought since Obama took office pertain to alleged leaks that sprung under his predecessor. . . .

despite talk of a scorched-earth campaign against leakers, there have been no charges filed in connection with some of the most significant secrets revealed during the past decade — including disclosures to The New York Times about the Bush-era effort to intercept some phone calls and e-mails without warrants.

The lack of charges over the warrantless wiretapping leak, which hit the front page of the Times in December 2005, is particularly notable since former Justice Department attorney Thomas Tamm told Newsweek more than two years ago that he was a key source for the story.

Anti-leak efforts can be overdone, particularly when rank-and-file government workers are prosecuted while political appointees may engage in selective leaking all they want. On the other hand, I think searching out and sanctioning leakers of national security information is far preferable to going after journalists, as some conservatives proposed during the Bush Administration.