Over the past several weeks in the US, there has been a series of high-profile media scoops exposing numerous details about President Obama's covert foreign policy and counterterrorism actions, stories appearing primarily in The New York Times. Americans, for the first time, have been told about Obama's personal role in compiling a secret "kill list", which determines who will be targeted for death in Pakistan and Yemen; his ordering of sophisticated cyber-attacks on Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities; and operational details about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Each of these stories revealed information clearly in the public interest and sparked important debates. But the way in which they were reported – specifically, their overwhelming reliance on Obama's own usually anonymous aides – raise longstanding and still troubling questions about the relationship between the establishment American media and the government over which it is supposed to serve as adversarial watchdog.
The Obama White House's extreme fixation on secrecy is shaped by a bizarre paradox. One the one hand, the current administration has prosecuted double the number of whistleblowers – government employees who leak classified information showing high-level official wrongdoing – than all previous administrations combined. Obama officials have also, as ACLU lawyers documented this week in the Guardian, resisted with unprecedented vigor any attempts to subject their conduct to judicial review or any form of public disclosure, by insisting to courts that these programs are so secretive that the US government cannot even confirm or deny their existence without damaging US national security.
But at the very same time that they invoke broad secrecy claims to shield their conduct from outside scrutiny, it is Obama officials themselves who have continuously and quite selectively leaked information about these same programs to the US media. Indeed, the high publicity-value New York Times scoops of the past two weeks about covert national security programs have come substantially from Obama aides themselves.
The Times' "kill list" article was based on interviews with "three dozen of his current and former advisers [who] described Mr Obama's" central role in choosing whom the CIA will kill. The paper's scoop that Obama ordered cyber-attacks on Iran cited, among others, "American officials", including "a senior administration official" who proudly touted the president's hands-on role in all measures used to cripple Tehran's nuclear research.
Meanwhile, the same White House that insists in court that it cannot confirm the existence of the CIA's drone program spent this week anonymously boasting to US news outlets of the president's latest drone kill in Pakistan. And government emails ordered disclosed by a federal court last month revealed that at the same time as they were refusing to disclose information about the Bin Laden raid on the grounds that it is classified, the Obama administration was secretly meeting with, and shuffling sensitive information to, Hollywood filmmakers, who are producing what is certain to be a stirring and reverent film about that raid, originally scheduled to be released just weeks before the November presidential election.
The tactic driving all of this is as obvious as it is disturbing. Each of these election year leaks depicts Obama as a tough, hands-on, unflinching commander-in-chief: ruthlessly slaying America's enemies and keeping us all safe. They simultaneously portray him as a deep moral and intellectual leader, profoundly grappling with the "writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas", as he decides in secret who will live and die and which countries will be targeted with American aggression.
In sum, these anonymous leaks are classic political propaganda: devoted to glorifying the leader and his policies for political gain. Because the programs are shrouded in official secrecy, it is impossible for journalists to verify these selective disclosures. By design, the only means the public has to learn anything about what the president is doing is the partial, selective disclosures by Obama's own aides – those who work for him and are devoted to his political triumph.
But that process is a recipe for government deceit and propaganda. This was precisely the dynamic that, in the run-up to the attack on Iraq, co-opted America's largest media outlets as mindless purveyors of false government claims. The defining journalistic sin of Judith Miller, the New York Times' disgraced WMD reporter, was that she masqueraded the unverified assertions of anonymous Bush officials as reported fact. As the Times' editors put it in their 2004 mea culpa, assertions from anonymous sources were "insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged".
These recent Times scoops about Obama's policies do not sink to the level of the Judy Miller debacle. For one thing, they contain some impressive reporting and even disturbing revelations about the conduct of Obama officials – most notably, that they manipulate casualty figures and hide civilian deaths from their drone attacks by "counting all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants".
For another, they include some internal criticism of Obama's practices, such as the indiscriminate nature of his "signature" drone strikes (when they see "three guys doing jumping jacks", the CIA concludes it's a terrorist training camp), and the deceit inherent in his radically broad definition of "militant". (One "official" is quoted as follows: "It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants. They count the corpses and they're not really sure who they are.")
Moreover, these disclosures have real journalistic import. It's indisputably valuable for American citizens to know that their government convenes secret "kill list" meetings, and that it is launching cyber-attacks on Iran, attacks which the Pentagon considers (at least, when done to the US) to be an "act of war".
But despite those real differences with the Judy Miller travesty, the basic template is the same. These reporters rely overwhelmingly on government sources. Their reporting is shaped almost exclusively by the claims of underlings who are loyal to the president. The journalists have no means of verifying the assertions they are passing on as fact. And worst of all, they grant anonymity to Obama's aides who are doing little more than doing the president's bidding and promoting his political interests.
It is pure "access journalism": these reporters are given scoops in exchange for their wholly unjustified promise to allow government officials to propagandize the citizenry without accountability (that is, from behind the protective shield of anonymity). By necessity, their journalistic storytelling is shaped by the perspective of these official sources.
And the journalistic product is predictably one that serves the president's political agenda. Obama's 2008 opponent, Republican Senator John McCain, complained, quite reasonably, that the intent of these recent leaks was to "enhance President Obama's image as a tough guy for the elections". Worse, as the Columbia Journalism Review and the media watchdog group FAIR both documented, these stories simply omitted any discussion of many of the most controversial aspects of Obama's policies, including the risks and possible illegality of cyber-attacks on Iran and drone strikes in Yemen, the number of civilian deaths caused by Obama's drone strikes, and the way those drone attacks have strengthened al-Qaida by increasing anti-American hatred.
Perhaps the most pernicious effect of this type of journalism is that it converts journalists into dutiful messengers of official decrees. Reporters are trained that they will be selected as scoop-receivers only if they demonstrate fealty to the agenda of official sources.
In February, the Times' Scott Shane controversially granted anonymity to a "senior" Obama official to smear as al-Qaida sympathizers the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, after the BIJ documented the significant under-counting by Obama officials of civilian deaths from drone strikes as well as the Obama administration's horrifying and possibly criminal practice of targeting rescuers and funerals with drone attacks. It was Shane, along with Jo Becker, who was then provided with the scoop about Obama's "kill list".
Similarly, the Times' David Sanger has long been criticized for uncritical dissemination of misleading US government claims about the threat from Iran, almost always passed on with the shield of anonymity. It was unsurprising, then, that it was Sanger who was rewarded with the valuable scoop about Obama's ordering of cyber-attacks on Iran (a scoop he is using to sell his new book), and equally unsurprising that the article he produced was so flattering of Obama's role in this operation.
By revealing contrast, consider the treatment meted out to the Times' James Risen, who has produced scoops that are embarrassing to, rather than glorifying of, the US government. It was Risen who exposed the Bush administration's illegal NSA eavesdropping program in 2006, and he also exposed a highly inept and harmful CIA attempt to infiltrate Iran's nuclear program.
As a result, the Obama justice department has relentlessly pursued Risen in court, serving him with subpoenas in an attempt to compel him to reveal his source for the Iran infiltration story, a process that could send him to prison if, as is likely, he refuses. Matt Apuzzo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist for Associated Press, explained the obvious lesson being taught by this episode:
"Sanger writes on successful Iran operation, gets wide access. Risen writes on botched Iranian operation, gets subpoenaed."
There is a fundamental tension between serving as adversarial watchdog over government officials and serving as the primary amplifiers of their propaganda. The US government has perfected the art of training American journalists to realize that they will be rewarded if they serve the latter role, and punished if they do not. Judging by these last several weeks of high-profile, government-disseminated scoops, it is a lesson that many journalists have learned all too eagerly.
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Editor's note: the article originally made reference to "cyber-attacks on Iraq", where the author's intention was Iran; this typographical error was amended at 12pm ET on 8 June.