“Armed at the ready with the First Amendment on full display when convenient, they call on the complete transparency of all sources and tactics as a foundation of free speech. Yet how often do you see them cite their own sources and tactics…”
The work of the CIA to fulfill its mission may have encountered unprecedented setbacks in recent weeks following the release of classified information revealing details about sensitive tactics, the damage of which won’t be fully realized for some time. This is a troubling realization and a real obstacle for professionals working on the front lines who often spend years cultivating the technology and relationships necessary to yield valuable gains in wars against our adversaries—gains that, while built on long hours and sacrifice, are abated with the simple stroke of a keyboard and click of a send button.
What should be just as disconcerting for all Americans is the exuberance with which members of the press report on and expose information that is classified as a matter of national security. This latest episode reflects a crescendo in a song that’s being sung all too often these days by many in the mainstream media. And it is one that underscores a hypocritical and dangerous double standard.
My career and exposure to journalism and the media bookends my time spent as an officer with the CIA. Years ago, as a student at the University of Missouri’s “J-school,” oft touted as one of the premiere institutions for journalism in the country, I gained an appreciation for the work and role the profession has in sustaining a free society. At its foundation and in its purest form, journalism is the mechanism by which we have checks and balances on our governing bodies and engage in dialogue throughout our communities. It ensures a two-way means of communication is possible at all levels of society. It is a practice founded on the principles of objectivity and serving the greater good. What we are seeing in this era displayed by many of the field’s more prominent figures who identify as “journalists,” however, is less about furthering and adhering to the fundamental tenets of the profession and more about pushing agendas while operating according to double standards and loose ethics. There is a reason that it has become one of the least trusted professions. No more glaring of an example exists than the media’s disregard for the ramifications of exposing classified information.
The bevy of arguments trotted out to justify their right to do so runs the full gamut. The fact that the reporters tied to these releases, after all, don’t represent the actual leaker is a favorite line by many. They are just the messenger—a pass-through, if you will. The problem here reflects double standard number one; ask any police officer or lawyer if someone who knowingly sells or purchases counterfeit items is guilty of a criminal act, even though they are not the creator of said items, and see what the answer is.
Or perhaps you’ll hear all about transparency and accountability tied together by the landmark Supreme Court ruling from 1971: The New York Times vs. The United States , a.k.a. the “Pentagon Papers” case. The outcome of this case dismissed the government’s argument that the release of highly sensitive classified information would be damaging to national security, and that the rights of the press superseded protection of the intelligence gathered. This case did not establish any new laws, mind you, and gave favor to the First Amendment above all—a worthy, noble, and necessary staple of our democracy. It is no doubt against the law to violate anyone’s free speech. And herein lies double standard number two: failure to apply the same respect to all laws of the land. It is also against the law, in fact, for anyone to knowingly communicate, transmit, or make readily available classified information to an unauthorized person, as set forth by US Code Title 18 Section 798. The penalty of violation yields up to ten years in jail. Note that the language here is not accompanied by the requisite asterisk to carve out protections for journalists.
We as a nation have the appropriate laws on the books. Yet since the latest version of this code was updated in 1996, thousands of leaks are estimated to have made their way to the pages of newspapers and websites. But the number of parties prosecuted and punished according to the law sits in the single digits, a matter of enforcement above all else. With such lax and ineffective accountability, who can blame the culprits? After all, careers have often been catapulted as the result of breaking such stories.
Furthermore, we have a society whereby those who are indisputably guilty of such acts are celebrated instead of condemned. Armed at the ready with the First Amendment on full display when convenient, they call on the complete transparency of all sources and tactics as a foundation of free speech. Yet how often do you see them cite their own sources and tactics with any degree of specificity? And when tasked to do so, shield laws and the right to privacy that are carted out in defense. Prison time becomes a noble option instead of an unjust penalty. Thus, with a simple turning of the tables, these journalists swing from victim to hero. And all the while, what is lost on them and so many who clamor to absorb and call for more leaks is that the men and women sacrificing and serving on the front lines are just as much a part of the greater good the profession of journalism is meant to serve, and they work to protect the safety of and provide security for all Americans. Even the ones who continue to jeopardize their work and mission.
Brandon Blackburn is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and former CIA Counterterrorism Officer with a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and an MBA with a concentration in International Business. During his time with the CIA, Brandon served multiple tours in the Middle East, to include Iraq and Jordan, and in Afghanistan. Brandon consults with businesses and media on national security related issues with his consulting firm B4B Enterprises. He can be followed on Twitter @Bran_Blackburn.
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