Was the government’s AP net too wide?

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

In May 1970, U.S. college campuses erupted in widespread anti-war protests after U.S. troops crossed over from Vietnam to Cambodia to destroy North Vietnamese army sanctuaries.

The incursion into Cambodia lasted about two months. At the time, I was serving on a U.S. Navy ship in the South China Sea. President Nixon announced around July 1 that all U.S. troops had been withdrawn from Cambodia, but a week later I was reading top secret cables that a Navy Seal team had been inserted to retrieve a radio detachment that had been left behind to monitor enemy communications.

After 43 years, my memory is a little hazy, but my reaction at the time was that Nixon was living up to his “Tricky Dick” persona.

A year later, Daniel Ellsburg was arrested and charged with leaking the so-called “Pentagon Papers,” which revealed a lot of classified information about the U.S. strategy in fighting the Vietnam War.

While liberals have long hailed Ellsburg as a hero, I have always wondered since then how many American soldiers or their South Vietnamese allies died because of his actions.

So it is, that we have come full circle. It is the liberal Obama Administration which has now indicted a half dozen people for leaking classified government information.

Five of those cases occurred in 2010, including the indictment of Pfc. Bradley Manning for releasing 250,000 State Department cables to Wikileaks. Manning’s trial is supposed to begin Monday.

Again, I wonder how many people died or disappeared into some Third World gulag because of the release of that information.

I saw enough classified information during my time in the Navy to know that a good share of what the government classifies as confidential, secret or top secret is because it would be more embarrassing than dangerous to leak it. But the area is gray, and one person can’t possibly know all the ramifications of leaking that information.

Better to be safe than sorry, I say. And after 43 years, I feel safe in reporting that there is no longer a need to keep secret that U.S. service personnel were in Cambodia a week after the president said they weren’t.

But now, the Department of Justice is going on fishing expeditions. Most recently, it subpoenaed the personal, home and office phone records of 20 Associated Press reporters and editors in four offices. As an explanation, the Department of Justice said they were trying to learn who had leaked information about a failed terrorist plot that occurred in 2011. That story was worked on by one AP editor and five reporters.

That’s why it can be called a “fishing expedition.” The government chose to cast a wide net.

Think about it. Six people worked on the story, but the government subpoenaed the records of 20 newshounds. The offense of the other 14? Guilt by association apparently. They happened to work in the same office.

A news report that came out the day before the government released its own press release on the same subject probably didn’t upset the government all that much. More likely, it was upset with the general amount of leakage.

The AP has protested mightily, but the Obama Administration got what it wanted. It sent a powerful message to the leakers that they will track them down, regardless if national security issues are involved or not.

President Obama even came out and said that he didn’t want to put reporters in jail, and that a federal shield law, protecting reporters from being jailed, would be a good idea.

But the message was clear. They are going after leakers, regardless of what the Constitution might say about freedom of the press and its corollary, the freedom to associate.

The result of that will be that fewer people will be willing to talk to reporters off the record, making it more difficult for the news media to report anything other than the official spin from the administration.

As a member of the media, I see both sides. Not all classified information is created equal. As I said, some secrets protect the government from embarrassment, and other secrets protect national security.

Blanket statements don’t work. There’s no wisdom in saying either that no government secrets should be published or that no government secrets should be allowed. The American people need to know if the government is waterboarding terrorists, or singling out opposition political groups for harassment or breaking and entering the offices of political opponents.

But they don’t need to know if the CIA has a spy in North Korea or Iran monitoring those country’s nuclear weapons programs. Nor do they need to know the names of every person in a Third World hell hole who is working with the CIA to get rid of a dictator.

Most of the time, the media has to use all its resources to get the information it needs for an important news story. But every so often, big news falls right into the reporter’s lap.

If a government official leaks national security information to the media, it puts the media in a tough spot. If it sits on the information, then the leaker will give the scoop to someone else. If it publishes it, the media may be breaking the law.

The Obama administration needs to stay within the Constitution when investigating and prosecuting leakers. Casting a net over citizens whose only sin is working in the same office as a reporter who revealed classified info leaked from a government official is stretching it, but only the revealing of all the relevant facts after they are declassified 40 years from now will tell us enough to offer a clear verdict.


Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at tom.west@mcrecord.com.