Category Archives: leaks

Where Obama is dangerously wrong about journalism

imgres3Don’t miss this excellent piece by Glenn Greenwald, which ran recently in The Guardian. In it, Greenwald — a lawyer, journalist, and prize-winning author — carefully builds a case about what the Obama administration is doing. In short, he argues that the DoJ (with Obama’s certain knowledge) is taking steps to make it a crime to do many of the activities that constitute investigative journalism. The focus is the case involving Fox News’ James Rosen, but most of these thoughts apply to many other cases as well.

This is something that all journalists, all political progressives, and all Obama supporters need to grasp. The president is wrong on this, and his people are out of control.

The take-away:

Under US law, it is not illegal to publish classified information. That fact, along with the First Amendment’s guarantee of press freedoms, is what has prevented the US government from ever prosecuting journalists for reporting on what the US government does in secret. This newfound theory of the Obama DOJ – that a journalist can be guilty of crimes for “soliciting” the disclosure of classified information – is a means for circumventing those safeguards and criminalizing the act of investigative journalism itself. These latest revelations show that this is not just a theory but one put into practice, as the Obama DOJ submitted court documents accusing a journalist of committing crimes by doing this.

That same “solicitation” theory, as the New York Times reported back in 2011, is the one the Obama DOJ has been using to justify its ongoing criminal investigation of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange: that because Assange solicited or encouraged Manning to leak classified information, the US government can “charge [Assange] as a conspirator in the leak, not just as a passive recipient of the documents who then published them.”

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Filed under broadcasting, First Amendment, Fox News, Journalism, journalism history, leaks, Obama, Politics, President Obama

Memo to Obama: Hands off the news media!

By Christopher B. Daly

Today brings more disappointing news about the Obama administration. As they spend more years in office, they are starting to revert to the mean and resemble a very ordinary power-grabbing, rights-trampling, self-serving operation. Alas.

NYT coverage / WaPo coverage.

Image_FreeSpeechWhile they have been busy not closing Guantanamo, this administration has been busy setting the all-time record for leaks investigations. The latest misguided attempt to stop leaks is the disclosure that the Obama Justice Dept. “secretly seized two months of phone records for reporters and editors of The Associated Press.” The rationale was that the AP had received a “leak” from someone in the government about a CIA operation to disrupt a plot unfolding in Yemen that was aimed at taking down an airliner. If true, that was a fine thing for the CIA to do. If true, then the folks in the CIA running the operation should have kept their mouths shut. If someone in the government who had knowledge of it spilled the beans, that’s not the fault of journalists. The Obama administration, like every other administration, needs to get its own house in order. You don’t stop leaks by trampling the First Amendment.

Instead, we get this (from NYT):

The A.P. said that the Justice Department informed it on Friday that law enforcement officials had obtained the records for more than 20 telephone lines of its offices and journalists, including their home phones and cellphones. It said the records were seized without notice sometime this year. The organization was not told the reason for the seizure.

The First Amendment exists to safeguard the right of the American people to be informed. The only known means to provide the kind of information we need to govern ourselves comes from a free and independent press, which is protected in its new-gathering every bit as much as it is protected in its news-telling. If the executive branch investigates the news media every time its own employees leak information, that cannot help but have a “chilling effect” on the news business.

This is ancient truth, going back at least as far as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. If Obama does not want to go down in history in the same chapter with Richard Nixon, he has got to cut this stuff out. He could start by firing Attorney General Eric Holder.

Memo to the AP: The government got all those phone records from your telephone company. I would suggest you cancel your account and try a different carrier. 

Hat-tip: to NYT’s Charlie Savage, who seems to have staked out a new beat: reporting on the constitutional infringements and other abuses of power committed by the Obama administration.

Obligatory quote: Here’s Thomas Jefferson on the dangers of executive power:

"Aware of the tendency of power to degenerate into abuse, the
worthies of our country have secured its independence by the15715v
establishment of a Constitution and form of government for our
nation, calculated to prevent as well as to correct abuse." 
--Thomas Jefferson to Washington Tammany Society, 1809.

Clarification: Of course, what the administration objects to are unauthorized leaks. The leaks they plan and execute for their own purposes are, naturally, quite alright.


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Filed under First Amendment, Journalism, leaks, Obama, Uncategorized

When the news is wrong (for a stupid reason)

By Christopher B. Daly 

imagesAs many have observed, several front-line news organizations reported incorrectly on Wednesday afternoon that authorities had “arrested” or “taken into custody” a suspect in the Boston marathon bombing. As someone who spent 10 years working for The Associated Press (where our watchword was always, “Get it first, but get it right”), I feel bad for journalists who are chasing leads in the investigation into the bombing case. They are under tremendous pressure to advance the story, “break” news, and stand out from the crowd.

I feel bad for them, but that’s not my only response. I also feel appalled at the news media’s chronic inability to exercise restraint. As the afternoon unfolded, I had a sickening sense of deja vu: here we go again, with the race to be first.

But, first with what, exactly? If the cops or the FBI had really made an arrest, they were going to announce it — and quickly. So, what difference does it make if I find that out at 2:30 or 2:45 or 4:00? Is my life any better?

Besides, it’s not as if this is the kind of news that authorities try to hide. When they nab a bad guy, they’re proud of it. They want to stand there at the press conference (ties all straight, uniform gleaming) and take a turn at the podium to say the same clipped phrases they always say. Sure, that’s important, and someone should be there to report it. But we do not need an entire army of reporters trying to get this information first. The mania for being first upsets and erodes all other journalistic priorities.

This kind of frenzy for “scoops” is essentially a waste of journalistic resources and enterprise. There are many fine, experienced, tough reporters and photographers in Boston this week. They should not waste their time trying to surf a few feet ahead of the cops in pursuit of factual information that is going to be divulged anyway. This is particularly true when reporters get in the way: if journalists report, for example, that an arrest is “imminent,” doesn’t that tell the bad guys that it’s time to flee?

In fact, I don’t consider that kind of reporting a “scoop” at all. Real news consists of information that someone is trying to hide or that would not come to light unless an individual journalist gets out and gathers information and connects some dots. Reporters make a contribution to society when they generate information that we would not have otherwise.

So, get out there and find a real, true story — and tell me something I don’t know and that won’t be announced from a podium.

We can do better.

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Filed under CNN, Journalism, journalism history, leaks, Uncategorized

Shameless self-promotion (Journalism history division)

By Christopher B. Daly

Finally, it’s here: the electronic version of my book about the history of U.S. journalism, Covering America.

Just in time for the anniversary of the rollout of the hardback, this prize-winning book is now available in all major formats:



Apple iBook, (This is the format I am checking it out on, and it looks great.)

Google Play,

you name it.

I am very pleased because I know that some folks have been waiting for the e-book. These formats make the book quite a bit cheaper and dramatically lighter! For people who don’t feel drawn to the ~$50 hardcover, here’s your chance to read Covering America. The book won the 2012 Prose Award for Media and Cultural Studies, and it has been selling well and drawing rave reviews (except for one stinker on Amazon — sheesh).

Enjoy it, and write to me about your reactions. You can comment here, or email me:

CA cover final






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Filed under broadcasting, CNN, Covering America, David Halberstam, FCC, First Amendment, Fox News, history, Huffington Post, Journalism, journalism history, leaks, Murdoch scandal, New York Times, NPR, Photography, Photojournalism, Politics, publishing, Supreme Court, The New Yorker

Leaks (cont.)

By Christopher B. Daly

The able legal-affairs reporter Charlie Savage and Scott Shane have an interesting update in today’s Times about the issue of national-security leaks. The upshot is that the Obama administration has (surprisingly perhaps) emerged as the all-time record-holder among all U.S. presidential administrations for prosecuting leaks. (The piece has a helpful sidebar — which was better looking in print than online — that summarizes nine known leaks cases.)

A couple of related questions:

–Which administration holds the record for generating leaks? (probably a two-term president like Nixon, Reagan, G.W.Bush? or like Clinton?)

–Isn’t it worthwhile to distinguish between different types of leaks?

A. We might differentiate between authorized and unauthorized leaks.

B. We might differentiate between leaks to journalists and leaks to others.

C. We might differentiate between leaks that do harm and those that do not.

For example, it is one thing for a traitor to steal operational secrets and sell or give them to agents of a hostile power. That’s the kind of leak that should properly trigger Congressional outrage and lead to criminal prosecutions. That kind of leak raises no First Amendment issues.

It is quite a different thing for a troubled official to tell a journalist about a secret policy so that the public can debate whether that policy is a good idea. It is this kind of leak that usually induces partisan posturing and leak investigations that fizzle. It is also the kind of leak that requires a careful weighing of the First Amendment implications.

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Filed under First Amendment, Journalism, leaks, New York Times, publishing

Leaks investigation

By Christopher B. Daly

The Times editors probably should have slapped an “Analysis” label on this piece (which it carries online, but not in today’s print version) or put in the Sunday Review section. In any case, Charlie Savage has an intelligent analysis of why “leaks” investigations so often come to nought.

He makes a key legal point here:

Many people are surprised to learn that there is no law against disclosing classified information, in and of itself. The classification system was established for the executive branch by presidential order, not by statute, to control access to information and how it must be handled. While officials who break those rules may be admonished or fired, the system covers far more information than it is a crime to leak.

Instead, leak prosecutions rely on a 1917 espionage statute whose principal provision makes it a crime to disclose, to persons not authorized to receive it, national defense information with knowledge that its dissemination could harm the United States or help a foreign power.

And he goes on to make the point that prosecutors have a difficult showing the harm that flows from disclosures of classified information. It is almost never the case that a news media participant in a leak will divulge real, active military secrets. Instead, the practice of leaking is usually someone’s way of trying to win or shape a policy debate. It is the pursuit of politics by other means.


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Update on leaks

At his press conference later in the day (June 8), Obama had this comment on the issue:

“The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive,” he said. “It’s wrong. And people, I think, need to have a better sense of how I approach this office.”

Without confirming the accuracy of the information — which was revealed in two articles in The New York Times last week — Mr. Obama said the such leaks deal with the safety of the American people, its military and its allies.

“We don’t play with that,” he said, vowing to investigate the leaks. “We consistently, whenever there is classified information that is put out into the public, we try to find out where that came from.”


Of course, what else would he (or any president) say?

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Obama and Secrets

By Chris Daly 

As is becoming obvious, the Obama administration is developing a disappointment on the promises made by candidate Obama to run an open government. Instead of transparency, we are getting business as usual — or, in some areas, worse than usual.

The New York Times’ David Carr has a helpful update today on the government’s use of the Espionage Act under Obama. More often than not, federal prosecutions are brought against leakers who divulge secrets to the press. Rarely do we see prosecutions of real spies, the kind who steal or buy classified information on behalf of some hostile foreign government that then uses that information to defeat us militarily. Now, that kind of thing would justify the existence and the use of the Espionage Act. But no. The law is usually used to punish the people who are journalists’ sources. Rather than go after the reporters directly, the government (usually) settles for punishing the leaker, who is usually a government employee.


The Espionage Act, as I detail in my new book (which should in bookstores on Friday), Covering America, was passed in 1917 by a Congress that was unsure whether the American people would support a war that the president himself had said was unnecessary until right before the U.S. plunged into the fighting in Europe. Among those prosecuted under the Espionage Act (or its companion law, the Sedition Act of 1918) was the socialist leader Eugene Debs, who was imprisoned for giving a speech.

Carr’s piece, as I mentioned, is valuable, but it raises one beef I have with the Times’ coverage in general – that is, the paper’s use of links. In today’s piece, there are plenty of links, but they are almost all internal; they link to earlier Times stories or to the Times Topics database. There is nothing wrong with those, but the paper consistently misses chances to link to historical materials. There is no reason  the Times couldn’t link to the text of the Espionage Act, for instance. Actually, there may be a reason: these links are not always easy to find. But they would give the Times‘ reporting a lot more authority.










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Filed under First Amendment, history, Journalism, journalism history, leaks, New York Times, President Obama

The Mobster and the Tipster

By Chris Daly 

More reasons to enjoy life in one of the last remaining two-newspaper cities in America. The Globe and the Herald continue to bash each other (as they should), sometimes at the risk of sounding silly.

A brief re-cap: The Globe began this round with a major piece on Sunday about mobster Whitey Bulger. The Herald, acting in reflexive opposition to its bitter rival and perhaps in a bit of pique about not having done that story themselves, let fly on Monday with what looked like a news story in which the FBI expressed its shock (shock, shock, shock!) over the Globe’s decision to divulge the identity of the tipster who led the FBI to Bulger. Since then, it has been back and forth all week with each newspaper using news articles, columns, and editorials to dump on the other.

Here are today’s updates from the Globe and the Herald. As a public service, I am also providing a link to the FBI statement that both papers are bickering over. It is a head-spinning experience to read all three documents in quick succession.

FWIW, here’s my take: The FBI is trying to tell each paper what it thinks they want to hear. Each paper is interpreting the same material in a way that conforms to its own gloss on the story. And on it goes.

In this case, it is not hard to imagine each paper working up just as much outrage over the opposite set of facts. Once a newspaper war breaks out, there are no neutrals. The winner (if any) will be the one that gets more readers out of it.






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Filed under Boston, Journalism, leaks, media

Leaks, cont.

By Chris Daly

Here is a reminder that when elected officials denounce “leaks” to the news media, what they are usually talking about are unauthorized leaks. Every elected official that I ever covered or researched used leaks when they considered them advantageous. When a leak occurred that proved disadvantageous, they usually denounced those disclosures as horrendous ethical breaches that threatened the integrity of government, blah, blah, blah…

In this case, there is an added bonus: seeing Cheney have to acknowledge that leaking is a tactic (not a matter of principle) and as a super-bonus, seeing Cheney out of the loop.

Plus, a hat-tip to Dave Ignatius.




Filed under Journalism, journalism history, leaks, Uncategorized