Where do the media get off exposing a spy?

At first blush, the Robert Levinson affair seems like the epitome of reckless reporting on national security: The news media flat out blew a missing spy’s cover.

Levinson, a former FBI agent who vanished in March 2007 on the Iranian island of Kish, hadn’t been working as a private investigator, as the U.S. government had consistently claimed. Actually, he was working for the CIA. That’s what the Associated Press reported this month in a rigorously detailed 5,200-word article.

The AP said it learned of Levinson’s CIA ties in 2010, and at the government’s request had delayed publishing what it knew three times. The New York Times followed the AP days later with a story of comparable heft, and, not to be outdone, said it had known about Levinson’s CIA connection since late 2007 and had kept quiet to avoid endangering him.

The White House called the AP story “highly irresponsible,” and spokesman Jay Carney said they had  “strongly urged” the wire service not to run the story. Sen. Bill Nelson, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from Levinson’s home state of Florida, who’d been working with his family, said he too had admonished the AP not to publish.

The AP acknowledged that the story might put Levinson at risk, but argued it’s “almost certain” his captors know about his mission. “We have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication,” executive editor Kathleen Carroll wrote.

The Levinson affair is no fable of daring spycraft. It’s the sort of tale familiar to connoisseurs of John LeCarre’s world. There, hapless agents way past their prime who yearn for redemption are beguiled into pointless and misguided missions to serve the dreary vanities of bureaucratic schemers.

Levinson, now 65 if he’s still alive, appears to have fallen victim to a factional split within the agency between analysts and operatives, in which the desk-bound experts—like Monty Python’s CPA who longed to be a lion tamer—figured they’d run their own field agents. Levinson was a retired 28-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI, and reportedly was tasked with wooing a potential informant.

Nobody will say where he is and, if he was captured, by whom and why. Iran’s foreign minister said on TV two weeks ago that he had “no idea” where Levinson is. The family last received video evidence he was alive in early 2011. With U.S.-Iran relations a top administration concern, Secretary of State John Kerry says he’s continuing to try to find Levinson and get him back.

Meantime, three senior CIA analysts have been fired, seven others were disciplined, and the government paid $2.5 million to Levinson’s family. The story that has since emerged is of a rogue operation, and as the AP account made its way through the news system his mission came to be described as “unapproved.”

Still, exposing a covert agent in the field has long been held out as the electrified third-rail of national security reporting—to be avoided at all cost—and it’s worth looking closer at this case to see an instance where publication was, I think, clearly warranted.

First, let’s put the decision to expose Levinson in a journalistic context: The media’s other option was deceit. For years, each and every time the AP, The Times and other organizations that knew better described him as a private individual engaged in private inquiries—the cover story was that he was investigating cigarette smugglers—they were misleading their readers, deliberately.

Continue reading “Where do the media get off exposing a spy?”

Unlike media, public worries more about spying Snowden exposed than secrets he leaked

It’s unwise to put too much weight on polls, but a recent survey on the Edward Snowden affair suggests better judgment among the general public than our usual opinion leaders have been able to muster.

The national survey of U.S. voters by Quinnipiac University found that by a huge margin—55 to 34 percent—respondents considered Snowden, the former National Security Agency contract employee, to be a whistleblower, not a traitor.

In what the pollsters call “a massive shift in attitudes,” voters also said the government was going “too far” in its anti-terrorism program—a dramatic swing from a January 2010 poll in which respondents, 63-25, said the government wasn’t doing enough to safeguard the country.

Not all polls agree. A Pew/Washington Post survey conducted in June found 56 percent of respondents thought routinely tracking hundreds of millions of phone records was acceptable.  But even there, support for Internet monitoring was weak. By 52-45 percent, respondents rejected allowing the government to “monitor everyone’s email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks.”

Apparently the Snowden affair sits atop a fault line in public opinion, with a substantial number of people disgruntled and suspicious about the sweeping surveillance he exposed.

Coverage of that rumbling has until recently been muted, largely because the protest has lacked the kind of high-profile champions that reassure the media that a cause is respectable and legitimate. Last week’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee may signal a change, with lawmakers from both parties clearly piqued and warning administration representatives that they must scale back their more intrusive practices.

Still, that criticism hasn’t affected the overall flavor of Snowden coverage, which keys off unremittingly harsh comments and relentless administration pressure to get him repatriated for trial. House Speaker John Boehner called him “a traitor,”  Continue reading “Unlike media, public worries more about spying Snowden exposed than secrets he leaked”

U.S. is uniquely harsh in its panic over government secrets

By the standards of other countries, the U.S. approach to official secrecy is ferocious.

For leaking hugely newsworthy information to the press, ex-intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who’s beseeching a score of countries for asylum, and Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier being tried by a military court in Maryland, face charges of espionage. They could go to prison for life.

Elsewhere, punishment for making official secrets public is less severe than the penalties here for driving drunk: at worst, two years in Britain and Denmark. In other Western countries, maximum punishments range from four years in Sweden and Spain, to five in Germany, Belgium and Poland, and seven in France.

That’s according to an analysis of 20 European countries by Sandra Coliver, a legal expert with the Open Society Justice Initiative. Her group has been leading a multiyear, international effort to formulate broad principles reconciling the legitimate need to keep government secrets with the no less legitimate need to hold governments publicly accountable.

Not only are penalties mild elsewhere, Coliver found, prosecutions are rare.  In six countries, nobody in the past decade has been convicted for disclosing state secrets. In Britain, since the 1989 Official Secrets Act took effect, only 10 public employees have been prosecuted. The longest sentence was imposed on a naval petty officer who sold intelligence to a newspaper about a possible Iraqi anthrax attack. He got a year.

In fact, apart from the United States, the only country where prosecutions are common is Russia. There, 10 government employees have been imprisoned in the past decade for from four to 15 years for disclosing government information publicly.

Europe’s courts seem to be moving toward support for whistleblowers, even when state security is breached.

In a 1996 case, a military intelligence official in Romania was initially sentenced to two years for releasing the tapes of illicit wiretaps his agency had made of journalists and politicians.

But the European Court of Human Rights ruled that he was wrongly convicted, Continue reading “U.S. is uniquely harsh in its panic over government secrets”

Assange and Wikileaks: Time to Ask the Impertinent Questions

I’m badly out of step with my media brethren, since I find the fate of Wikileaks and its besieged founder, Julian Assange, a truly compelling story. Other media don’t agree. The pressure on Assange, who has taken sanctuary in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, is to them fringe stuff, a quirky faceoff involving a spectral, white-haired weirdo most journalists disdain, who spilled secrets that annoyed officialdom and which U.S. media mostly ignored anyway.

True, the story’s got sex, since Sweden wants Assange extradited to answer complaints of bedroom wrongdoing in Stockholm. But even sex can’t give it the boost it needs, and Wikileaks gets nowhere near the attention lavished, for instance, on the imbecilic U.S. Senate candidate from Missouri who believes women have an inbuilt capacity to keep from being impregnated by rapists.

I think the real Wikileaks story is a very big deal and has been preposterously underplayed and under-reported by the U.S. media. Wikileaks, the global anti-secrecy network Assange founded, exploded into the headlines worldwide in 2010. It had been aggressively posting documents from foreign governments and private entities—exposing corruption in Kenya, tax avoidance by a British bank, toxic waste in West Africa, internal Scientology documents.

But Wikileaks became world famous in April 2010 when its leaks involved the United States. First was the release of gunsight video showing a U.S. helicopter massacring people on a Baghdad street, among them civilians, Reuters journalists and a child. That was followed by war logs first from Iraq, then from Afghanistan, thousands of U.S. military documents, and by a third trove—U.S. diplomatic cables, more than 250,000, covering some 100 countries, published by a makeshift cooperative of four leading news organizations.

It was the most stupendous assault ever on official secrecy.

The counterattack has been steady and effective. The U.S. arrested an Army Continue reading “Assange and Wikileaks: Time to Ask the Impertinent Questions”