Why is the U.S. press corps so silent about an actual threat to press freedom?
In February, after Donald Trump tweeted that the U.S. media were the “enemy of the people,” the targets of his insult exploded with indignation, devoting wall-to-wall media coverage to what they depicted as a grave assault on press freedoms more befitting of a tyranny. By stark and disturbing contrast, the media reaction yesterday was far more muted, even welcoming, when Trump’s CIA Director, Michael Pompeo, actually and explicitly vowed to target freedoms of speech and press in a blistering, threatening speech he delivered to the D.C. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
What made Pompeo’s overt threats of repression so palatable to many was that they were not directed at CNN, the New York Times or other beloved-in-D.C. outlets, but rather at WikiLeaks, more marginalized publishers of information, and various leakers and whistleblowers, including Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
Trump’s CIA Director stood up in public and explicitly threatened to target free speech rights and press freedoms, and it was almost impossible to find even a single U.S. mainstream journalist expressing objections or alarm, because the targets Pompeo chose in this instance are ones they dislike – much the way that many are willing to overlook or even sanction free speech repression if the targeted ideas or speakers are sufficiently unpopular.
Decreeing (with no evidence) that WikiLeaks is “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia” a belief that has become gospel in establishment Democratic Party circles – Pompeo proclaimed that “we have to recognize that we can no longer allow Assange and his colleagues the latitude to use free speech values against us.” He also argued that while WikiLeaks “pretended that America’s First Amendment freedoms shield them from justice,” but: “they may have believed that, but they are wrong.”
He then issued this remarkable threat: “To give them the space to crush us with misappropriated secrets is a perversion of what our great Constitution stands for. It ends now.” At no point did Pompeo specify what steps the CIA intended to take to ensure that the “space” to publish secrets “ends now.”
Before delving into the chilling implications of the CIA Director’s threats, let’s take note of an incredibly revealing irony in what he said. This episode is worth examining because it perfectly illustrates the core fraud of U.S. propaganda.
In vilifying WikiLeaks, Pompeo pronounced himself “quite confident that had Assange been around in the 1930s and 40s and 50s, he would have found himself on the wrong side of history.” His rationale: “Assange and his ilk make common cause with dictators today.”
But the Mike Pompeo who accused Assange of “making common cause with dictators” is the very same Mike Pompeo who – just eight weeks ago – placed one of the CIA’s most cherished awards in the hands of one of the world’s most savage tyrants, who also happens to be one of the U.S. Government’s closest allies. Pompeo traveled to Riyadh and literally embraced and honored the Saudi royal next-in-line to the throne.
This nauseating event – widely covered by the international press yet almost entirely ignored by the U.S. media – was celebrated by the Saudi-owned outlet Al Arabiya: “The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, received a medal on Friday from the CIA . . . . The medal, named after George Tenet, was handed to him by CIA Director Micheal Pompeo after the Crown Prince received him in Riyadh on Friday in the presence of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense.”
The description of this Pompeo/Saudi award ceremony was first reported by the official Saudi Press Agency, which published the above photographs. It gushed: “In a press statement to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), following the reception, the Crown Prince expressed appreciation of the CIA for bestowing on him such a grace, laying assertion that this medal is a fruit of endeavors and instructions of the leaders of the kingdom, notably the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, bravery of security men and cooperation of all walks of the community to combat terrorism.”
Then there’s the venue Pompeo chose: the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). As the New York Times reported in 2014, the CSIS – like so many of D.C.’s most prestigious think tanks – is itself funded by dictators.
In particular, the United Arab Emirates has become “a major supporter” of the group, having “quietly provided a donation of more than $1 million to help build the center’s gleaming new glass and steel headquarters not far from the White House.” Other CISIS donors include the regimes of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan.In return, UAE officials are treated like great statesmen at CSIS.
This is all independent of the fact that Pompeo’s boss, President Trump, just hosted at the White House and lavished praise on one of the world’s most repressive tyrants (and closest allies of the U.S. Government), Egyptian leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. And the government of which Pompeo is a part sends arms, money and all kinds of other support to dictators across the planet.
So how could Mike Pompeo – fresh off embracing and honoring Saudi tyrants, standing in a building funded by the world’s most repressive regimes, headed by an agency that for decades supported despots and death squads – possibly maintain a straight face as he accuses others of “making common cause with dictators”? How does this oozing, glaring, obvious act of projection not immediately trigger fits of scornful laughter from U.S. journalists and policy makers?
Try to find mainstream media accounts in the U.S. of Pompeo’s trip to Riyadh and bestowing a top CIA honor on a Saudi despot. It’s easy to find accounts of this episode in international outlets, but very difficult to find ones from CNN or the Washington Post. Or try to find instances where mainstream media figures point out what should be the unbearable irony of listening to the same U.S. Government officials accuse others of supporting dictators while nobody does more to prop up tyrants than themselves.
This is the dictatorship-embracing reality of the U.S. Government that remains largely hidden from its population. That’s why Donald Trump’s CIA Director – of all people – can stand in a dictator-funded think tank in the middle of Washington, having just recovered from his jet lag in flying to pay homage to Saudi tyrants, and vilify WikiLeaks and “its ilk” of “making common cause with dictators” – all without the U.S. media taking note of the intense inanity of it.
But it is Pompeo’s threatening language about free speech and press freedoms that ought to be causing serious alarm for journalists, regardless of what one thinks of WikiLeaks. Even more extreme than the explicit attacks in his prepared remarks is what the CIA Director said in the question-and-answer session that followed. He was asked about WikiLeaks by the unidentified questioner, who queried of “the need to limit the lateral movements such as by using our First Amendment rights. How do you plan to accomplish that?” This was Pompeo’s answer:
A little less Constitutional law and a lot more of a philosophical understanding. Julian Assange has no First Amendment privileges. He is not a U.S. citizen. What I was speaking to is an understanding that these are not reporters doing good work to try to keep the American Government on us. These are actively recruiting agents to steal American secrets with the sole intent of destroying the American way of life.
That is fundamentally different than a First Amendment activity as I understand them. This is what I was getting to. We have had administrations before that have been too squeamish about going after these people, after some concept of this right to publish. Nobody has the right to actively engage in the theft of secrets from American without the intent to do harm to it.
Given how menacing and extreme this statement is, it is remarkable – and genuinely frightening – that it received so little notice, let alone condemnation, from the U.S. press corps, most of which covered Pomepo’s speech by trumpeting his claim that WikiLeaks is an agent of an enemy power, or noting the irony that Trump had praised WikiLeaks and Pompeo himself had positively tweeted about their revelations.
Pompeo’s remarks deserve far greater scrutiny than this. To begin with, the notion that WikiLeaks has no free press rights because Assange is a foreigner is both wrong and dangerous. When I worked at the Guardian, my editors were all non-Americans. Would it therefore have been constitutionally permissible for the U.S. Government to shut down that paper and imprison its editors on the ground that they enjoy no constitutional protections? Obviously not. Moreover, what rational person would possibly be comfortable with having this determination – who is and is not a “real journalist” – made by the CIA?
But the most menacing aspect is the attempt to criminalize the publication of classified information. For years, mainstream U.S. media outlets – including ones that despise WikiLeaks – nonetheless understood that prosecuting WikiLeaks for publishing secrets would pose a grave threat to press freedoms for themselves. Even the Washington Post Editorial Page – at the height of the controversy over WikiLeaks’ publishing of diplomatic cables in 2010 – published an editorial headlined “Don’t Charge WikiLeaks”:
Such prosecutions are a bad idea. The government has no business indicting someone who is not a spy and who is not legally bound to keep its secrets. Doing so would criminalize the exchange of information and put at risk responsible media organizations that vet and verify material and take seriously the protection of sources and methods when lives or national security are endangered.
The Obama administration, in 2010, explored theories for how it could prosecute WikiLeaks, and even convened a Grand Jury to investigate. But it ultimately concluded that doing so would be impossible without directly threatening First Amendment press freedoms for everyone. As former Obama DOJ spokesman Matthew Miller yesterday said of Pompeo’s threats:
But back in 2010, the Obama DOJ briefly flirted with, but then abandoned, the possibility that it could get around this problem by alleging that WikiLeaks did more than merely publish secrets, that it actively collaborated with its source (Chelsea Manning) on what documents to take. As the New York Times’ Charlie Savage reported then: “a government official familiar with the investigation said that treating WikiLeaks different from newspapers might be facilitated if investigators found any evidence that Mr. Assange aided the leaker, who is believed to be a low-level Army intelligence analyst — for example, by directing him to look for certain things and providing technological assistance.”
Ultimately, though, no evidence was found that this happened. And, beyond that, many in the DOJ concluded – rightly so – that even this “collaboration” theory of criminalization would endanger press freedoms because most investigative journalists collaborate with their sources. As Northwestern Journalism Professor Dan Kennedy explained in the Guardian:
The problem is that there is no meaningful distinction to be made. How did the Guardian, equally, not “collude” with WikiLeaks in obtaining the cables? How did the New York Times not “collude” with the Guardian when the Guardian gave the Times a copy following Assange’s decision to cut the Times out of the latest document dump?
For that matter, I don’t see how any news organisation can be said not to have colluded with a source when it receives leaked documents. Didn’t the Times collude with Daniel Ellsberg when it received the Pentagon Papers from him? Yes, there are differences. Ellsberg had finished making copies long before he began working with the Times, whereas Assange may have goaded Manning. But does that really matter?
The dangers to all media outlets from this theory should have been crystal clear when Joe Lieberman and former Bush Attorney General Mike Mukasey argued that the New York Times itself should be prosecuted for publishing and reporting on WikiLeaks’ secret documents – on the ground that no meaningful distinction could be made between the NYT and WikiLeaks.
But criminalizing WikiLeaks’ publication of documents is clearly part of what Pompeo is now planning. That’s what he meant when he argued that “administrations before have been too squeamish about going after these people, after some concept of this right to publish”: he was criticizing the Obama DOJ for not prosecuting WikiLeaks for publishing secrets. And this is why Pompeo yesterday claimed – with no evidence – that WikiLeaks “directed Chelsea Manning in her theft of specific secret information.” He clearly intends to pursue prosecution of WikiLeaks and Assange for publishing classified information.
It has long been a dream of the far right, as well as hawkish Obama followers, to prosecute journalists and outlets that publish secret information based on this theory. As Newsweek noted in 2011: “Sarah Palin urged that Assange be ‘pursued with the same urgency we pursue Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders,’ and The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol wants the U.S. to ‘use our various assets to harass, snatch or neutralize Julian Assange and his collaborators.'”
This same “collaboration” theory that Pompeo is advocating is what various Obama loyalists, such as MSNBC’s Joy Reid, spent months hyping in order to justify the prosecution of the journalists (such as myself) who reported the Snowden materials: that we did not merely report them but “collaborated” with our source. Her theory then became the basis for her NBC colleague David Gregory asking if I should be prosecuted on the ground that I “aided and abetted” Snowden.
This – the “collaboration” theory propounded back then by Bill Kristol and Joe Lieberman and Joy Reid, and now by Mike Pompeo – is the mentality of people who do not understand, who do not practice, and who hate journalism, at least when it exposes the bad acts of the leaders they revere. Just as is true of free speech abridgments, if you cheer for it and endorse it because the people targeted in the first instance are ones you dislike, then you are institutionalizing these abridgments and will be unable to resist them when they begin to be applied to people you do like (or to yourselves).
WikiLeaks now has few friends in Washington: the right has long hated it for publishing secrets about Bush-era war crimes, while Democrats now despise them for its perceived role in helping defeat Hillary Clinton by exposing the secret corruption of the DNC. But the level of affection for WikiLeaks should have no bearing on how one responds to these press freedom threats from Donald Trump’s CIA Director. Criminalizing the publication of classified documents is wrong in itself, and has the obvious potential to spread far beyond their initial target.
People who depict themselves as part of an anti-authoritarian #Resistance — let alone those who practice journalism — should be the first ones standing up to object to these creepy threats. The implications of Pompeo’s threats are far more consequential than the question of who one likes or does not like.