The Best Defense

The Best Defense interview: Steve Coll on White House leaks & what might happen

Steve Coll, a former managing editor of the Washington Post and author of Ghost Wars, a favorite book of many readers of this blog, is one of the best journalists I've ever met. He especially understands intelligence matters, national security, and Washington. So when he wrote this week in the New Yorker about the possibility of high-level indictments of national security officials at the Obama White House, I paid attention. Here is an e-mail interview I conducted with him:

  • What makes you think that there may be indictments of high-level Obama administration officials down the road?

It's clear that the Justice Department has been carrying out extensive interviews with current and former senior administration officials about David Sanger's excellent reporting on the Obama administration's involvement in cyberattacks against Iran. At the same time, the administration has established that it is willing to tolerate aggressive leak prosecutions against current and former government officials. Equally, the White House is allowing Justice prosecutors to make such decisions without political interference -- as is proper (See: Richard Nixon). So if you add all that up, indictments are a possibility.

  • Have you talked to David Sanger, or to anyone else at the New York Times, about the leaks to him? If so, what did they say?

I have not formally approached the Times or Sanger about this investigation -- the subject of my New Yorker reporting was the separate prosecution of former C.I.A. officer John Kiriakou, who pleaded guilty and became the first C.I.A. officer ever sent to prison for providing information to the American press. In that longer story, I mentioned the ongoing Sanger case as context, based on what I picked up along the reporting trail, and I cited some reporting by the Washington Post, which appeared earlier this year.

  • Do you think that the situation with Sanger and high-level Obama administration officials may have altered the Times's coverage of national security issues? If so, how?

I don't have any reason to think that. The Times, under executive editor Bill Keller and now Jill Abramson, has had to handle a succession of tricky editorial and publishing decisions involving classified information, from Wikileaks to these multiple leak investigations by the National Security Division at Justice. There was the Kiriakou case, which involved the Times; a separate case involving former C.I.A. officer Jeffrey Sterling and Times reporter James Risen; and now the Sanger case. In the Risen and Sanger cases, the Justice investigations have involved reporting done for books, in addition to reporting done for the Times. My reading from far outside is that the Times editors have done very well handling these dilemmas. It's a complicated responsibility, as I can testify from experience at the Washington Post. I'm sure there are at least a few calls the editors would like to have back, but overall I think they've made courageous, responsible decisions in the public interest.

  • Who do you think might be indicted?

I don't know.

  • Do you think such indictments would be justified?

Almost certainly not, particularly if they involve heavy charges under the Espionage Act or other similar statutes, as Justice has done in previous cases. As my story about the Kiriakou case outlined, leak prosecutions are highly selective and they fail to take into account the institutionalized failures and hypocrisy of the government's management of classified information. David Pozen, a law professor at Columbia University, estimates in a forthcoming Harvard Law Review article that fewer than three in a thousand leak violations are actually prosecuted, and the true percentage, if all leaks of classified information could be counted reliably, is almost certainly much closer to zero. These kinds of prosecutions -- aimed, apparently at creating a deterrent effect -- in an atmosphere of such laxity just can't be justified as public policy, even if they are permissible as a matter of law.

  • What does all this say to you about how Washington (both in politics and journalism) works these days?

The Kiriakou case teases some of that out -- it's a very polluted environment. There's a lot of opportunism from all sides. That's why they call Washington a swamp. But I think the single biggest factor -- and a factor that could be fixed -- is the broken system that over-classifies government information by orders of magnitude. Until the government can credibly distinguish a real secret from a phony or artificial one, prosecutions of leakers will always seem selective and without adequate foundation.

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