During the last five years, President Obama has prosecuted more cases of unauthorized disclosures of classified information (or leaks) than all other presidents combined. Government officials often make the case that leaks undermine the nation’s security or compromise the sources and methods of U.S. intelligence collection. These two arguments serve as the key basis of the government’s argument for bringing charges against those who leak information. However, the freedom of the press is protected in the majority of these cases, with journalists to who publish the stories containing leaked information rarely successfully prosecuted.
Thus, it’s through media coverage, rather than through formal intelligence oversight mechanisms, that the public is informed of the government’s intelligence activities, since the government can have input on, but not control over, what is published news (Hillebrand).
The freedom of the press inherently bestows an oversight responsibility onto news media, given that their words and actions are minimally restricted. But what exactly does that responsibility entail? Hillebrand defines the three oversight roles of the news media as: 1) an information transmitter and stimulator for formal scrutinizers; 2) a substitute watchdog; and 3) a legitimizing institution.
In short, the media can spark a public debate about lack of accountability in intelligence collection and can provide a channel for leaking information about potential abuses of power in intelligence collection. It also has the power to legitimize intelligence institutions when it reports on successful operations or internal oversight mechanisms. But Hillebrand misses one key power of the news media in information oversight that Henry Farrell, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, has recently put forth. Farrell argues that the news media also has the power to turn information into knowledge when that information is disseminated by a reputable news outlet.
Most media outlets carefully consider the potential damage to national security when they are reporting on sensitive or leaked information, consulting those within the government before publishing a story. In the eyes of the public, this gives those news stories a seal of verification that information posted on blogs, message boards, or chat rooms would not have.
And that seal of approval is why the recent leak of thousands of classified documents from former military contractor Edward Snowden did not have much significance – until Glenn Greenwald and the British news outlet The Guardian came on the scene (Farrell).
Greenwald is known for being one of the reporters to break the story on U.S. and British intelligence programs collecting data on their own nation’s citizens after the information was revealed in documents leaked by Snowden.
Snowden’s act was the latest in what has been a string of high-profile leaks of classified information over the past two years that include other leakers (or whistleblowers, depending on your viewpoint) such as Bradley Manning, who is now known as Chelsea Manning, and Wikileaks’ Julian Assange.
However, leakers like Assange or Snowden merely partake in information “dumps,” not bothering to sort through information and make sense of it. That’s why they need people like Greenwald and reputable, established news sources to legitimize and make relevant the information they offer (Farrell). Journalists have the unique ability to provide a sharper, more detailed interpretation of reports and information “dumps” that may otherwise go unnoticed – or, if noticed, misunderstood – by the public (Hillebrand), making reporters like Greenwald even more critical to intelligence oversight and accountability.
And Greenwald’s skill at just that is what allows information published by a legitimate news source to go from being just information to transforming into common knowledge – “generally accepted facts that people use to build their understanding of what everybody knows about politics” (Farrell).
Greenwald announced last month that he would be leaving his position as a reporter for The Guardian to pursue his own media venture, backed by philanthropist and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. With such generous backing, Farrell argues that Greenwald’s news venture could be just the type of outlet it takes to turn information like that of Snowden’s or Assange’s into real knowledge – and oversight.
The purpose of having some form of oversight over intelligence activities – whether through formal institutional mechanisms or the media – is to ensure the opportunity for public debate on the actions of intelligence officials. Chesterman argues that official secrets acts and the interests of elected officials often times work to upset the media’s intelligence oversight efforts (Hillebrand).
For example, both the U.S. and British governments have publicly denounced the leaked information Greenwald has included in his pieces – with British officials going to the lengths of detaining Greenwald’s partner in an airport terminal because they believed he was carrying classified information with him – citing the common arguments of endangering national security and compromising sources and methods discussed above.
But Farrell and Finnemore take a different approach, posing that the information that came out in the Snowden leaks shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who was paying close attention. Instead of damage to national security or sources and methods, these leaks mostly harmed the nation’s ability to act hypocritically (Farrell, Finnemore).
In other words, citizens and other nations were complicit with U.S. intelligence gathering activities when they could plead blissful ignorance. But once these findings were published by legitimate news sources, the information that was long ignored became hard to overlook public knowledge. For emerging powers such as Brazil and China, these public revelations forced their hand to respond to what had long been known by their governments. Brazil’s president canceled a long-scheduled state dinner at the White House when it was revealed that the U.S. had been collecting her personal communications. After the U.S. had previously denounced China for attempting to hack into American communication networks, China called for an end to American hypocrisy when it was revealed that the United States, too, had been attempting to hack Chinese computers and networks (Farrell, Finnemore).
“Few US officials think of their ability to act hypocritically as a key strategic resource,” Farrell and Finnemore state. And news ventures like that of Greenwald’s could continue to deplete that resource.
Now that he has established himself as someone who is willing to dig deep into leaked documents and national security issues, Greenwald’s new path could cause even more disruptions of the U.S. government’s ability to act hypocritically, potentially forcing U.S. officials to lean towards more closely aligning their actions and their rhetoric, and suggested by Farrell and Finnemore.
Claudia Hillebrand (2012). The Role of News Media in Intelligence Oversight, Intelligence and National Security, 27:5, 689-706, DOI: 10.1080/02684527.2012.708521.
Farrell, Henry. “Why Glenn Greenwald’s new media venture is a big deal.” The Washington Post, 17 October 2013. Accessed 17 October 2013.
Farrell, Henry and Martha Finnemore. “The End of Hypocrisy.” Foreign Affairs (2013). Accessed 4 November 2013.