Journalist Bites Leakers

There is stark debate between Jeff Toobin, the CNN legal analyst, and Glenn Greenwald, blogger and Guardian columnist over Bradley Manning’s transfer of State Dept. cables to Wikileaks. What makes Cablegate different from other leak cases is that the ship of state did not leak from the top, but from the bottom. It doesn’t get much lower than a private first class.

As Greenwald points out quite rightly, Manning leaked cables marked “Secret” or less (the classification goes confidential > secret > top secret). He did not disclose “Top Secret” documents and certainly not “Secure Compartmentalized Information,” secrets so secret that only specific persons are given access regardless of their clearance level. By contrast, Bob Woodward and scores of other Washington journalists frequently disclose such information when it is leaked to them (though in many, but not all cases, the underlying documents are not available to the public).

What makes the Manning case different from these leaks is that we have most of the documents available. This is similar to the Pentagon Papers, which the NY Times and then the Washington Post published. Like Manning, Daniel Ellsberg did not give the  newspapers the most sensitive documents, the four volumes of diplomatic records. Unlike the Manning case, Ellsberg had been a senior civilian officer in the Defense Dept.

Toobin’s position seems to be that when senior officials leak to establishment journalists, it is OK. But when junior officials leak to upstart journalists, it is a bad thing. Greenwald calls him on this. What Toobin omits in his quasi-defense of leaking is that even senior officials have no authority to leak documents. They cannot foretell what damage their actions might cause when they leak more highly classified knowledge. Particularly sensitive is the National Security Agency’s capacities to monitor electronic communications. Although there is nothing particularly secret about how the NSA is doing what it has done, an inadvertent disclosure of what else the NSA can or cannot do regardless of legal authority could be incredibly damaging to US intelligence efforts in other areas.

Greenwald makes a crucial point: the damage from Cablegate is quite possibly nil. No one has tied any cable that was leaked to any harm. Government officials have backed off assertions that serious damage would occur. Of course, the counterpoint is that the fortunate outcome in this case does not mean that widespread leaking would be more benign in other cases.

The broader issue is how document should be classified. As Greenwald notes — as have many government officials — the classification process is frequently abused to hide the truth and that many documents are classified with no solid grounds for secrecy. Despite repeated calls to reform the classification rules, the process remains convoluted.

Toobin’s support for the Manning verdict is bizarre. Legally, it may be the correct verdict, but Toobin’s derision of Manning is odd for a practicing journalist.  Toobin seems to have forgotten his roots. His first book was a memoir of his work for the Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, a job he took shortly out of law school. Toobin had to submit his manuscript to Walsh for review under his terms of employment, and a legal battle broke out when Walsh refused to approve it. Toobin took criticism for seemingly taking the low-level job in order to publish a tell-all book. To now turn and denounce a low-level leaker is the height of chutzpah.


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