In his Oval Office address the other night, President Obama addressed the leak (or gusher) that should be of most concern to him and his advisers nowadays. That would be the one spewing millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico from a shoddily designed, cheaply erected deep-sea well that is sliming and killing wildlife, defacing beaches, and threatening a region's way of life for years to come.
But the New York Times tells us, and no one has sought to deny it yet, that there is an unprecedented zeal in the Obama White House these days for ferreting out and prosecuting leaks of a different kind: The ones that create the blessed and important tie that binds principled government insiders known as "whistleblowers" and a genre of journalist known in a bygone era as "muckrakers."
For those neither old enough nor versed enough in history to know that latter noun, it is a word that, despite its sound and all the awful limericks it could inspire, was an endearing term of respect, not a pejorative. It was a term born of the recognition that journalists, and those who feed context-filling secrets and background information to them, play an important role in a functioning democratic society.
I'm not necessarily advocating a free pass for the next nitwit who posts national security secrets on his Facebook page. And, I'm certainly not advocating leniency for those who would aid the nation's enemies out of monetary greed or disloyalty.
But now and historically, those on both sides of leaks that produce watchdog journalism are most often motivated by righting wrongs, eliminating waste and fraud, and exposing the excesses and the foolishness of those corrupted or blinded by the power of governing. Occasional self-serving motivations notwithstanding, they are people with good intentions who love the country and want to make it better.
It is ridiculous, in a legal context or in our everyday moral judgments, to view them through the same prism we use for traitors and those who commit treason. It's even more ridiculous when those with the power to prosecute can't tell the difference enough to make common-sense discretionary judgments.
That appears to be what we have here. Despite all manner of protestation from minions in Eric Holder's Justice Department that they are just protecting the country and doing their jobs, common-sense discretion certainly seemed to have been missing in the case of Thomas Drake, a former National Security Agency official now facing up to 10 years in prison for violating an obscure provision of the 1917 Espionage Act.
Drake was the centerpiece subject of the New York Times report, published a few days before Obama delivered his attempt-to-take-charge White House speech to the nation regarding the oil spill. The Times'ê article added context and detail missing in most prior news reports about the charges against Drake.
But more revealing was the disturbing big-picture story it told about a trend in the current administration. This administration, the one that promised transparency and accountability, has already outpaced the just-departed administration and all previous ones in prosecutions over leaking secrets to reporters.
It may provide cover to the prosecutorial zealots in the Obama administration that Drake is a senior guy at the NSA. National Security Agency. Leaked Secrets. Senior guy. Sounds bad, right?
But that prosecutorial cover sure seems to be undeserved. Drake's leaks, it appears, were about waste and incompetence on procurement matters. That's all.
He was tattling about computers systems and programs that cost a bundle but didn'êt work, not aiding the nation'ês enemies either intentionally or unintentionally.
We obviously don'êt know yet what heinous and nefarious misdeeds might come out at trial if this craziness continues. But from the facts now known, viewed in the light most unfavorable to Drake, he's guilty of nothing that couldn't have been better handled by a harsh letter of reprimand, a couple of days suspension, or a reassignment coupled with a stern finger wag.
If Drake is guilty of anything felonious, it is being one of those pain-in-the-butt know-it-alls who just can't let go when they are proven right after no one listened to them.
Whenever the prior administration and its cheerleaders got exercised about leaks to the press, it was easy to spot some self-serving phoniness in their outrage. Whether it was warrantless wiretapping, the secret CIA prisons, or some other revelation, the administration and their supporters would scream about the security breach and supposedly compromised intelligence. But everyone, including their supporters, knew that the real indignation was another embarrassing story in a news media they detested. Heaven help us if it was the despised New York Times that published the leak-based report, as it often was.
I suspect that with the current administration, the misguided zeal to prosecute leakers is fueled by a combination of some anal-retentive lawyerly types in Justice and a failure to recognize the chilling impact such prosecutions could have on reporters and their sources: they are the vital human components in the kind of watchdog journalism the keeps ups all better informed, safer and freer.