A matter of hours after we published a follow-up on reporter James Risen and the Obama administration's record on press freedom, Attorney General Eric Holder appeared at the Washington Ideas Forum on Wednesday and was asked by moderator Jonathan Capehart whether the U.S. Department of Justice will imprison reporters who have published top secret national security information provided by leakers. The exchange went like so:
HOLDER: This whole question of whistleblowers, we have gone after people who have gone -- who have said things or revealed things contrary to the oaths they have taken. And when it comes to reporters, what I have said, you know we made in the processes we have in place about how we interact with members of the media after the controversies erupted a couple of years or so ago. But beyond that, what I have said and what is a guiding force for this administration is that any reporter who is doing his or her job in gathering news is not going to go to jail as a result of that kind of activity.
CAPEHART: But are you gonna compel them to testify? Such as James Risen of The New York Times?
HOLDER: You know, the case is still one that has to be tried, and I think we will take actions that are consistent with what I just said.
CAPEHART: Such as compelling testimony?
HOLDER: No, no, no, we'll see how that goes. You know, people have to understand something, we have been in touch with Mr. Risen's lawyers, we talked about a variety of things. And if what we have talked about remains true, I think there'll be a resolution of that, that will be satisfactory to everybody. But as I said no one's gonna be going to jail -- no reporters are going to jail as long as I'm attorney general.
This is a fairly typical Holder response. Frustratingly coy in some places, but likely so for legal reasons since, clearly, these are open cases that haven't gone to trial yet (the Jeffrey Sterling case involving Risen goes to trial in January). Anyone expecting the Attorney General of the United States to lay out his prosecutorial strategy or any backroom deals for these or any other cases is foolish to think so. But he stated twice that he has no intention of jailing any reporters.
That said, Risen's lawyer, Joel Kurtzberg, told Politico, "I'm not sure what the Attorney General is referring to. We have no agreement with the Government about Mr. Risen’s testimony." So, who do we believe? First of all, Holder never really mentioned an "agreement" per se, rather just being in touch. Additionally, according to Politico, federal prosecutors in fact agreed to only seek the "where" and the "when" of Risen's alleged contact with his source. Such talks sound an awful lot like "being in touch" to me. On the other hand, if there isn't any deal for Risen's testimony and Holder was simply lying, it's a blunder of colossal proportions.
Deal or not, Holder seems pretty unequivocal when he twice stated that no journalists will be going to jail on his watch. How does this fit into the zombie meme that the Obama administration is the "Greatest Enemy of Press Freedom in a Generation?" It doesn't. We've already coveredthis week how the facts almost entirely contradict this hyperbolic label, regardless of whether you voted for or even like President Obama.
1) Zero journalists have been imprisoned during this administration.
2) Eight journalists were jailed during the previous two administrations.
3) Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy, said, "The Office of Special Counsel now stands for whistleblower rights in a way that it didn’t in the past."
4) Furthermore, Politifactreported on the OSC's record on whistleblowers: "For over a decade, OSC counted less than 100 successful favorable actions a year (including an all time low of only 29 in 2007), but in the fiscal year of 2012 they were able to reach 159 favorable actions, and [in 2013] it was 160."
5) The administration has signed at least two documents expanding whistleblower protections, including the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.
6) And, in terms of leaker prosecutions, the so-called "war on whistleblowers (leakers)," according to The New York Times' Charlie Savage, has been more "accidental" than anything else, while the bulk of the investigations began under the Bush administration.
At the end of the day, the administration certainly has room for improvement. Along those lines, Eric Holder's description of Risen as a "co-conspirator," which by the way he apologized for yesterday, along with the surveillance of Fox News Channel's James Rosen, were off the rails. But to suggest that the administration is the "Greatest Enemy of Press Freedom in a Generation" in light of the complete and comparative record is utterly cringe-worthy.
This leads us to a disturbing final point.
The past year or two have been enlightening, and not in a good way. For many years, I thought the left -- even the activist left -- stood firmly in command of the intellectually honest high ground. I thought the left was the "reality based" faction in our political discourse. Karl Rove's "non-reality based empire" was the exclusive domain of the far-right, as it lionized the ridiculous simpletons on Fox News Channel and AM talk radio with their science denial and wacky conspiracy theories. Contrary to the views of some, this has little to do with whether I voted for Barack Obama, and for what it's worth, I've always repeated my firm stance that I am no one's disciple. This has everything to do with observing first-hand how the establishment left has been increasingly spinning its way into both the clicky (and clique-y) sensationalism of the social media age as well as the disturbingly truth-bending territory which I thought was reserved for Hannity, Limbaugh and Drudge.
While I still self-identify as liberal on many of the top-shelf issues, both foreign and domestic, it's become nearly impossible to embrace the mostly digital establishment left any more due to it's increasingly obvious irrationality, mendacity and hyperbole, most recently illustrated by this "Greatest Enemy" meme, along with the complete lack of critical thought when it came to the reporting on the Edward Snowden story, say nothing of the unthinking, tone-deaf, kneejerk targeting of the first African-American president as a "war criminal," a "baby killer" and, most recently, a terrorist (Glenn Greenwald at timecode 6:05).
Rather than doing the hard work of going door-to-door (virtually or otherwise) and delivering powerful arguments based on objective facts and political reality, and rather than exercising smart accountability and persuasion, the left is increasingly ruled by cranky, sanctimonious pseudocelebrities who distort the facts and completely ignore political reality, which is a shame because there are so many areas where liberals can win the day by employing a strong command of both the facts and reality, maybe even convincing some moderate conservatives along the way.
It turns out misinformation isn't exclusive to Fox News and the others. The left might not be as gratuitous about it, or anywhere near as powerful, but the dual tactics of deception and conspiracy-mongering have jumped beyond the zero barrier and are currently infecting anyone whose blind loyalty to a meme or a blogger has overruled his or her loyalty to reality and the truth.