Forty years ago this week the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, the largest leak of classified documents in American history until WikiLeaks came along.
Julian Assange’s outfit is Barack Obama’s problem, and though the current administration lacks the vindictiveness and criminality of the Nixon White House, it has pursued leakers with just as much vigour. After promising the most transparent administration in history, Mr Obama and his Justice Department have pressed criminal charges against five suspected leakers under the Espionage Act, more than all other administrations combined, including Nixon’s.
Its efforts, so far, have had mixed results. Three cases are still pending, including that of Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking a trove of classified documents to WikiLeaks, which itself is under investigation by a grand jury. Mr Assange may be the administration’s great white whale, but last year it netted a smaller fish when it sent an FBI linguist, Shamai Leibowitz, to prison for 20 months for passing secret documents to a blogger.
More recently, though, the government has watched its case against Thomas Drake collapse. Mr Drake, a former official at the National Security Agency (NSA), tried to report mismanagement and illegalities at the agency to government officials, but was ignored. He then went to the press. The government charged him with misappropriating classified material, though he denied he had shared any secrets. Prosecutors, wary of revealing sensitive material in court, tried to tempt him with a generous plea deal, but he held out until last week. Originally facing up to 35 years in prison, he will now receive a much milder sentence, perhaps including no time in jail.
The government’s aggressive pursuit of Mr Drake confounded advocates of open government. In the eyes of many, his attempts to expose waste and wrongdoing at his agency make him a whistleblower. And although the law does not compel the government to differentiate between good leaks and bad leaks, Mr Obama has praised whistleblowing in the past, arguing that “such acts of courage and patriotism…should be encouraged rather than stifled.”
Others accuse the administration of having a double standard. Among the three cases still pending, Stephen Kim, a former State Department contractor, is accused of passing classified information about North Korea to Fox News. But his disclosures pale beside those in Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars”, which were evidently leaked by far more senior officials. “How can it be in the US government’s interest to pursue Mr Kim in the manner it has and allow this much more blatant event to go unaddressed?” asked Abbe Lowell, Mr Kim’s lawyer, in a letter to the Justice Department.
A bigger problem still is overclassification. Americans have been able to read most of the Pentagon Papers for 40 years, but the documents were declassified only this week. Similarly, many of the dispatches allegedly leaked by Mr Manning are still considered government secrets. And the Obama administration has only made things worse. According to the Information Security Oversight Office, a government agency, the administration created 224,734 new secrets in its first year in office, up 22.6% on the year before.
Even as the administration strives to keep secrets, it can still claim to have made some progress towards greater openness. Government agencies are putting more information online, and many have cut into the backlog of Freedom-of-Information-Act requests. Last year Mr Obama declassified the size of America’s nuclear arsenal and this year he revealed his intelligence budget request.
Excerpts, Classified information:Return of the plumbers, Economist, June 18, 2011, at 38