Is the Obama Administration Even Stricter about Leaks than the Bush Administration?

Last June, Fox News correspondent James Rosen reported that U.S. intelligence officials had given President Obama a warning about North Korea: in protest against a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Pyongyang's latest nuclear test, the regime would conduct yet another one. The threatened test never took place, but according to a former U.S. intelligence official who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive matters, Rosen's reporting caught the attention of Obama administration intelligence officials, who launched a full-scale investigation into who leaked classified information to the reporter. That investigation may soon go public: in recent weeks the Justice Department has targeted a suspect in the case (a government official who had been assigned to the State Department) and threatened to bring criminal charges.

If that happens, it will inevitably fuel allegations in the conservative blogosphere that the Obama White House is waging a vendetta against Fox News—which senior adviser David Axelrod has called "not really a news station." In fact, however, the case is only the latest example of a wide-ranging Obama administration crackdown against leakers—an enforcement campaign that may exceed similar efforts under President George W. Bush, according to some media groups. The crackdown is all the more noteworthy because the White House has made such a big deal of endorsing a proposed "shield" law that would give journalists some legal protection from being forced to divulge confidential sources—the idea being to demonstrate the president's  commitment to transparency in government. 

But behind the scenes, Obama has repeatedly and forcefully shown his displeasure over national-security leaks, expressing "real anger" on the subject at a White House Situation Room meeting last year, according to an aide who was present and asks not to be identified talking about internal discussions. The message seems to have been communicated to the Justice Department: Attorney General Eric Holder has overseen an unusually aggressive effort to identify and prosecute national-security leakers; a senior criminal-division lawyer, William Welch, who formerly headed the department's Public Integrity Section, was even tasked to review leftover leak investigations from the Bush era for potential indictments. "They are going after people they believe are leaking in a way that goes beyond what previous administrations have done," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "They're trying to show they're being tough."

Perhaps the most controversial move so far was April's grand-jury subpoena, personally approved by Holder, to New York Times reporter James Risen, requiring him to testify about sources for his 2006 book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. The subpoena (which Risen is fighting) was particularly surprising because the long-running investigation (centering on a chapter in which Risen recounted a botched CIA effort to disrupt Iran's nuclear program 10 years ago) was thought to be "dormant," according to the former intelligence official who spoke to Declassified. (Risen was originally subpoenaed by the Bush Justice Department, but that summons expired with the federal grand jury that had issued it. Under Welch's direction, a second grand jury was empaneled and a new subpoena was issued.) 

But Justice's efforts have gone way beyond that: the department recently indicted former National Security Agency official Thomas Drake for allegedly leaking to a Baltimore Sun reporter about a mismanaged NSA computer program aimed at intercepting data. The information Drake allegedly provided to reporter Siobhan Gorman resulted in "pretty classic public-interest reporting"  about the misuse of tax dollars at NSA, according to Dalglish. And last week a former FBI linguist was sentenced to 20 months in prison for giving classified information to a blogger.

NEWSWEEK's sources did not disclose the suspected Fox leaker's identity. But if the alleged culprit is ultimately indicted, the case will be a milestone: it will be the first criminal prosecution for a leak that took place during Obama's presidency. The Fox story said the information given to Obama on Pyongyang's plans was derived from CIA "sources inside North Korea." But according to the former U.S. intelligence official who confirmed the investigation to Declassified, the leak investigation was triggered not so much by any "actual damage" to national security. Rather, officials concluded that the classified report briefed to the president was distributed among a "relatively small group" of officials, thereby making it easier for the FBI to identify a suspected perpetrator. John Bolton, the former State Department undersecretary for arms control during the Bush administration and perhaps the most outspoken hardliner on North Korea's nuclear program, says the information in the Fox story was "neither particularly sensitive nor all that surprising." Much of it, he says, sounds like what many sources in South Korea were saying at the time. (He emphasizes that he has no direct knowledge of the leak investigation.)

Rosen declined to comment when contacted by Declassified. Holder's chief spokesman, Matt Miller, also refused to discuss the case, saying only, "We take leaks of classified information extremely seriously."

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