The disappeared. From Stalin’s Soviet Union to Pinochet’s Chile, men and women who vanished into prisons that officially did not exist are emblems of modern totalitarian rule. So when the Washington Post‘s Dana Priest disclosed a secret worldwide network of off-the-books CIA prison camps (including at least one former gulag outpost in Eastern Europe), a normal response would have been Congressional investigation. Hastert have indeed proposed an investigation–but a probe of reporter Priest’s sources, not of the “black sites.” And the Justice Department has its own criminal leak inquiry in the works.
Scandalous? Sure. But if Republicans have rushed to overpaint the picture of secret prison camps, they’re using a brush handed to them by Democrats and the antiwar movement. As Senate Intelligence Committee chair Pat Roberts put it, “It’s the same thing we did on the Valerie Plame issue,” meaning: Launch investigators straight at the reporter/source relationship. While the conscience-driven desire of Priest’s sources to expose the secret prisons could not be at further moral remove from Team Cheney’s partisan yearning to delegitimize Joe Wilson, the fact is that months of Democratic calls for criminal prosecution in the outing of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, give Republicans all the permission they need to deflect the “black sites” scandal, from violation of international law to breach of national security.
This turnabout amounts to alarming collateral damage from the Plame affair. From the beginning–even as antiwar Democrats sought historic vindication from Fitzgerald’s investigation–the Bush Administration used the Plame inquiry as a club against leak-prone dissenting officials in the State Department, military and intelligence agencies. In September 2003 Bush himself announced the stakes: “If there is a leak out of my Administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated the law, the person will be taken care of.” He clearly wasn’t talking about Karl Rove. And while Fitzgerald’s investigation put the Vice President’s office under pressure, the parade of journalists into the grand jury room nonetheless served the Administration’s secrecy policy well, reminding would-be leakers that news organizations might not protect their sources as thoroughly as promised and that unauthorized “sources” could face criminal sanction.
A very real paranoia about leaks and leakers has descended on Washington. I’ve spoken to reporters who have fended off visits from the FBI, and to formerly press-friendly Washington insiders convinced that the current climate makes media contact inadvisable. The Post itself, courageously backing Priest’s “black sites” story, nonetheless hedged on identifying the specific countries involved, even as the involvement of Poland, Romania and Hungary rapidly became an open secret and an EU scandal.
With Democrats and Republicans competing for the mantle of national-security protectors, it’s important to remember how often the country has been damaged by foreign-policy secrecy claims used against leakers and journalists. In 1798 Benjamin Franklin Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson and an intrepid anti-Federalist editor, found himself on the wrong side of the Sedition Act after printing a secret letter from Talleyrand to President Adams. The road to Watergate began with President Nixon’s attempts to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers–both in court and with the extralegal investigation of Daniel Ellsberg. Never mind all the Classified stamps that for decades hid the CIA’s role in assassination, torture and coups worldwide, and the attempts to punish former operatives who finally told the story.
Are power-friendly reporters–the Judith Millers and Bob Woodwards–too easily manipulated by selective leaks? Of course. But under certain circumstances–for instance, with a secrecy-obsessed White House waging a war that leaves many career foreign-service, military and intelligence officers aghast–what we casually call “leaking” is better described as whistleblowing. And when the conscience of public servants runs up against secrecy laws, whistleblowing becomes a form of civil disobedience. In recent months people have defied military orders, risked rank and position, and broken classification laws to bring information to journalists. When privates and corporals leak Abu Ghraib photos; when career intelligence officers leak news of rendition flights or secret prison camps; when reporters like Dana Priest investigate those claims, confirm them and put them on the front page; they are all taking up the responsibilities Congress refuses to accept, establishing the facts of US conduct in the fight against terrorism and documenting lines of accountability for flagrant abuses.
All this is a way of saying that the Democratic attack on the outing of Valerie Plame, so effective at exposing the corrupt origins of the Iraq War, cannot take the place of exposing the war’s equally corrupting present. Let’s revel in Scooter’s troubles and cheer Dick Cheney’s bloody nose. At the same time, though, let’s understand that putting an end to the Bush White House’s criminal policies requires more leaks. It would be a bitter irony indeed if the legacy of the Plame/Wilson case was that it shut down Washington whistleblowers.