James Clapper, President Obama’s top national security official, is probably best known for having been caught lying outright to Congress about NSA activities, behavior which (as some baseball players found out) happens to be a felony under federal law. But – like torturers and Wall Street tycoons before him – Clapper has been not only shielded from prosecution, and not only allowed to keep his job; he has has now been anointed the arbiter of others’ criminality, as he parades around the country calling American journalists “accomplices”. Yesterday, as Wired’s Dave Kravets reports, the “clearly frustrated” Clapper went before a Senate committee (different than the one he got caught lying to) to announce that the Snowden disclosures are helping the terrorists:
We’re beginning to see changes in the communications behavior of adversaries: particularly terrorists. A disturbing trend, which I anticipate will continue . . . Terrorists and other adversaries of this country are going to school on U.S. intelligence sources, methods, and tradecraft. And the insights they’re gaining are making our job in the intelligence community much, much harder. And this includes putting the lives of members or assets of the intelligence community at risk, as well as those of our armed forces, diplomats, and our citizens.
As Kravets notes, “Clapper is not the most credible source on Snowden and the NSA leaks.” Moreover, it’s hardly surprising that Clapper is furious at these disclosures given that “Snowden’s very first leak last June” – revelation of the domestic surveillance program – “had the side-effect of revealing that Clapper had misled the public and Congress about NSA spying.” And, needless to say, Clapper offered no evidence at all to support his assertions yesterday; he knows that, unlike Kravets, most establishment media outlets will uncritically trumpet his claims without demanding evidence or even noting that he has none.
But in general, it’s hardly surprising that national security officials claim that unwanted disclosures help terrorists. Fear-mongering comes naturally to those who wield political power. Particularly in post-9/11 America, shouting “terrorists!” has been the favorite tactic of the leadership of both parties to spread fear and thus induce submission.
In a recent New York Times op-ed detailing how exploitation of terrorism fears is the key to sustaining the modern surveillance state, Northwestern University Philosophy Professor Peter Ludlow wrote that “since 9/11 leaders of both political parties in the United States have sought to consolidate power by leaning … on the danger of a terrorist attack”. He recounted that ”Machiavelli notoriously argued that a good leader should induce fear in the populace in order to control the rabble” and that “Hobbes in ‘The Leviathan’ argued that fear effectively motivates the creation of a social contract in which citizens cede their freedoms to the sovereign.” It would be surprising if people like Clapper didn’t do this.
But what has struck me is how seriously many media figures take this claim. In the vast majority of interviews I’ve done about NSA reporting, interviewers adopt a grave tone in their voice and trumpet the claims from U.S. officials that our reporting is helping the terrorists. They treat these claims as though they’re the by-product of some sort of careful, deliberative, unique assessment rather than what it is: the evidence-free tactics national security state officials reflexively invoke to discredit all national security journalism they dislike. Let’s review a bit of history to see how true that is.
Here, for instance, is Dick Cheney, in a June, 2006 speech, condemning The New York Times for its reporting on the NSA warrantless eavesdropping and SWIFT banking programs, sounding exactly like James Clapper yesterday, along with countless Democratic commentators and blogs over the last year:
Some in the press, in particular The New York Times, have made it harder to defend America against attack by insisting on publishing detailed information about vital national security programs.
First they reported the terrorist surveillance program, which monitors international communications when one end is outside the United States and one end is connected with or associated with al Qaeda. Now the Times has disclosed the terrorist financial tracking program.
On both occasions, the Times had been asked not to publish those stories by senior administration officials. They went ahead anyway. The leaks to The New York Times and the publishing of those leaks is very damaging to our national security.
The ability to intercept al Qaeda communications and to track their sources of financing are essential if we’re going to successfully prosecute the global war on terror. Our capabilities in these areas help explain why we have been so successful in preventing further attacks like 9/11. And putting this information on the front page makes it more difficult for us to prevent future attacks. Publishing this highly classified information about our sources and methods for collecting intelligence will enable the terrorists to look for ways to defeat our efforts. These kinds of stories also adversely affect our relationships with people who work with us against the terrorists. In the future, they will be less likely to cooperate if they think the United States is incapable of keeping secrets.
Cheney was joined by George Bush, who called the NYT’s reporting “disgraceful” and said: “The fact that a newspaper disclosed it makes it harder to win this war on terror.” Bush White House spokesman Tony Snow added: “In choosing to expose this program, despite repeated pleas from high-level officials on both sides of the aisle, including myself, the Times undermined a highly successful counterterrorism program and alerted terrorists to the methods and sources used to track their money trail.”
Bush made exactly the same accusations in 2005 as Clapper did yesterday after the NYT back then (finally) revealed the NSA’s warrantless eavesdropping program. “My personal opinion is it was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war. The fact that we’re discussing this program is helping the enemy….It is a shameful act by somebody who has got secrets of the United States government and feels like they need to disclose them publicly.” A week later, Bush officials announced a criminal investigation of the leaks and said: “Our enemies have learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk. Revealing classified information is illegal, alerts our enemies, [and] endangers our country.”
Meanwhile, the GOP-led House actually passed a formal resolution condemning the NYT and “call[ing] on news organizations to avoid exposing Americans ‘to the threat of further terror attacks” by revealing U.S. government methods of tracking terrorists.” Then House Majority Leader John Boehner said: “We’ve just tipped off all of the terrorists around the world that here is another way that we could have caught you, but now you know about it.” Rep. Mike Oxley, the GOP Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, called the paper’s reporting “treasonous”, saying: “We are at war, ladies and gentlemen. Now some of you folks find that an inconvenient fact.” GOP Congressman Peter King called for the prosecution of the Times journalists and editors responsible for the stories – “We’re at war, and for the Times to release information about secret operations and methods is treasonous,” he said – just as he’s done for journalists involved in the current NSA reporting.
These same platitudes have been hauled out by U.S. officials for decades. When Daniel Ellsberg disclosed the Pentagon Papers, Nixon officials repeatedly smeared him – with no evidence – as likely working in conjunction with Russia (sound familiar?), while he and the NYT were repeatedly accused of damaging national security, putting our men and women in uniform in harm’s way, and helping America’s enemies.
Political officials hate transparency.They would rather be able to hide what they’re doing. They therefore try to demonize those who impose transparency with the most extreme and discrediting accusations they can concoct (you’re helping terrorists kill Americans!). The more transparency one imposes on them, the more extreme and desperate this accusatory rhetoric becomes. This is not complicated. It’s all very basic.
James Clapper is saying exactly what Dick Cheney and George Bush before him said, and those three said what John Ehrlichman and Henry Kissinger said before them about Ellsberg. It’s all spouted with no evidence. It’s rote and reflexive. It’s designed to smear and fear-monger. As Professor Ludlow notes, “Fear is even used to prevent us from questioning the decisions supposedly being made for our safety.”
Maybe it’s time for journalists to cease being the leading advocates for state secrecy and instead take seriously their claimed role as watchdogs. At the very least, demand evidence before these sorts of highly predictable, cliched attacks are heralded as something to be taken seriously. As it is, they’re just cartoons: ones that are played over and over and over.
Murtaza Hussain contributed research and reporting.