‘My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” Barack Obama pledged to the nation when he took office. Things haven’t quite worked out as the president promised.
Consider the fate of leakers of secret information—”whistleblowers” is the celebratory term employed by some in the press—at the hands of the Obama Justice Department. In December 2009, an FBI contract linguist pleaded guilty to passing classified information to a blogger. Shortly thereafter he was sentenced to 20 months in jail. This April, a high-ranking National Security Agency official was charged under the espionage statutes for passing secrets to a reporter at the Baltimore Sun. In August, a State Department contractor was indicted for passing secrets about North Korea to Fox News. On top of all of this, the military has charged a young army intelligence officer with the unauthorized transmission of national defense information. He is widely presumed to be the source of the huge trove of classified document published by WikiLeaks, the infamous online bulletin board for secrets.
Whatever one makes of the merits of any of these cases, the astonishing fact remains that in all of prior American history charges have only been brought in three instances for leaking classified information. In his first 21 months in office, President Obama has launched more such prosecutions than in all preceding administrations combined.
Then we have the Obama administration’s invocation of the state secrets privilege in court—a practice for which the Bush administration was roundly criticized by the left. In a series of high-profile terrorism cases, the Justice Department has asked judges to toss out those in which secret information would be disclosed.
Most recently, it has invoked the privilege in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric who resides in Yemen and is implicated in numerous terrorist attacks. “It strains credulity to argue that our laws require the government to disclose to an active, operational terrorist any information about how, when and where we fight terrorism,” a Justice Department spokesman commented last week.
George W. Bush was slammed unrelentingly for engaging, in the words of John Podesta—Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff and the founder of the liberal Center for American Progress—in a “prolonged assault on open government in the name of national security.” These same voices are turning on the Obama administration in tones more plaintive than withering.
There is “real doubt,” writes Ken Gude, a national-security expert at Mr. Podesta’s think tank, “that the Obama administration will live up to its commitment to usher in a new era of transparency.” Already last year, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero lamented that Mr. Obama has “disappointingly reneged” on some of his promises to be more open. “This is not change. This is definitely more of the same.”
If it is indeed more of the same, it is worth asking why. Mr. Obama has discovered, as much as he may wish it otherwise, that he is a war president. And like his predecessor, he is not only a war president: He is presiding over a particular kind of war in Afghanistan and in the broader war against Islamic terrorists where intelligence is more critical than ever.
The effectiveness of our intelligence tools—from the interrogation of captured enemy combatants to the capabilities of satellite reconnaissance systems—remains overwhelmingly dependent on their clandestine nature. It is not an overstatement to say that secrecy today is one of the most critical tools of national defense.
Leaks of counterterrorism secrets to the press, and disclosure of counterterrorism techniques and procedures in courtrooms, can imperil the war effort. We are thus faced squarely with the abiding tension between liberty and security. The U.S. government, under successive administrations, has been struggling to find the proper balance.
Now that they’re going after the Obama administration for its alleged unwarranted secrecy, the carping civil-libertarian critics are acquiring the virtue of consistency. Perhaps they can serve a useful purpose in guarding against government excesses. But one thing’s certain: The more voluble they become, the more apparent it also becomes that Mr. Obama is doing the right thing.
Mr. Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and resident scholar at the Witherspoon Institute, is the author of “Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law” (Norton, 2010).