Leak Prosecutions: Enforcing Secrecy Asymmetry Does Not Equate to Rule of Law

Matt Miller has a piece in the Daily Beast defending the Obama Administration’s prosecutions of leakers. Now, as Josh Gerstein notes, Miller makes his work easier by cherry-picking which cases to discuss; he doesn’t mention Thomas Drake, who was pretty clearly trying to expose waste and fraud (as well as the government’s choice to spend more money to provide less privacy protection). And he doesn’t mention Bradley Manning, who is alleged to have leaked at least some materials that expose war crimes and a lot more than expose abuse (though note, DOD, not DOJ, is prosecuting Manning).

But Miller’s argument suffers from a much bigger problem. He operates under the assumption that the sole crux of legitimacy arises from a distinction between whistleblower and leaker that he presents as absolute.

To start with, that distinction isn’t absolute (as Manning’s case makes clear). But even with John Kiriakou, whom Miller does discuss, it’s not absolute. Recall what Kiriakou was charged with: leaking the identity of a still covert officer involved in the torture program, being one of up to 23 people who leaked that Deuce Martinez–who was not covert–was involved in the torture program (though didn’t do the torture), and lying to the CIA Publication Review Board about the classification of a surveillance technique details of which have been readily available for decades (and which seems to be related to the Secret PATRIOT GPS application targeting American citizens in probable violation of the Fourth Amendment). In other words, two people involved in an illegal program and one technique that was probably improperly classified and since become another questionably legal executive branch spying technique.

But the entire investigation arose because defense attorneys with Top Secret clearance used the covert officer’s name in a still-sealed filing about the abuse their client had suffered at the hand of the US, possibly–though we don’t know–at the hand of the covert officer (because he is covert, the defense attorneys did not use the officer’s name or picture with their client).

Now, I have no way of knowing (nor does Miller) Kiriakou’s motive, and his case will probably end in a plea, meaning we’ll never get to learn it at trial. But the very genesis of the case–the defense attorneys’ attempts to learn who had tortured their clients so as to be able to adequately represent them–arises from the government’s failure to prosecute anyone for torture and its insistence on withholding arguably relevant information from legal teams, presumably in part to prevent them from attaining any redress for that torture in courts.

So regardless of Kiriakou’s motive, to argue for the legitimacy of his prosecution as events have transpired is to distract from the larger system in which the government uses secrecy to avoid legal consequences for its own crimes–regardless of what that does for justice.

And it’s not just with Gitmo detainees’ lawyers that the government has withheld information to prevent justice being done. It did that with al-Haramain, the Maher Arar suit, Jeppesen Dataplan–the list of times when the government has claimed something, even a widely known fact, is super duper secret just so it can’t be sued or prosecuted is getting quite long and tired. And, of course, it continues to do it with the Anwar al-Awlaki killing, preferring inconsistent claims of Glomar and state secrets to full accounting not just of Awlaki’s killing, but of the claims about Presidential power more generally.

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