Edward Snowden and the selective targeting of leaks

Another variety of the political leak is the counter-leak or convenient declassification, designed to neutralize or stigmatize an unauthorized leaker. The National Journal’s Ron Fournier, a former Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, explicitly charges the Obama administration with dispensing intelligence about the bin Laden raid to the press to “promote the president’s reelection bid.” He claims that virtually every unauthorized leak ends up being matched by the release of classified information or “authorized” leak. Indeed, immediately following Snowden’s NSA leaks, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, is said to have claimed NSA spying helped defeat a planned attack on the New York City subway system, although that claim is disputed.

Sometimes the counter-leak is more revealing than the leak it was intended to bury. In 2012, then-national security adviser John Brennan went a tad too far counter-leaking in his attempt to nullify an Associated Press report about the foiled underwear bomber plot. In a conference call with TV news pundits, Brennan offered that the plot could never succeed because the United States had “inside control” of it, which helped expose a double-agent working for Western intelligence. Instead of being prosecuted for leaking sensitive, classified intelligence, Brennan was promoted to director of the CIA; that’s the privilege of the policy leak.

Authorized leaks from the top aren’t the only ones that generally go unpunished. Sometimes when policy debates get driven underground by secrecy, members of the governing elite band together and tell their story to the press. The most recent example of this banding would be the 2005 stories in the New York Times about a previous secret NSA surveillance program. The Times series by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau enraged the Bush White House, but there nobody was charged with leaking because the series portrayed itself (accurately, I would guess) as the product of intense, internal government dissent. As Risen and Lichtblau wrote, nearly “a dozen current and former officials” spoke to the paper anonymously about the program “because of their concerns about the operation’s legality and oversight.”