Obama only goes after leaks that don't benefit him

President Obama walks on the South Lawn of the White House June 12, 2012, leaving for campaign stops in Baltimore and Philadelphia. AP Photo

(TomDispatch) (Disclaimer: The views here are solely those of the author, expressed in his capacity as a private citizen.)

White is black and down is up. Leaks that favor the president are shoveled out regardless of national security, while national security is twisted to pummel leaks that do not favor him. Watching their boss, bureaucrats act on their own, freelancing the punishment of whistleblowers, knowing their retaliatory actions will be condoned. The United States rains Hellfire missiles down on its enemies, with the president alone sitting in judgment of who will live and who will die by his hand.

The issue of whether the White House leaked information to support the president's reelection while crushing whistleblower leaks it disfavors shouldn't be seen as just another O'Reilly v. Maddow sporting event. What lies at the nexus of President Obama's targeted drone killings, his self-serving leaks, and his aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers is a president who believes himself above the law, and seems convinced that he alone has a preternatural ability to determine right from wrong.

If the President Does It, It's Legal?

In May 2011 the Pentagon declared that another country's cyber-attacks -- computer sabotage, against the U.S. -- could be considered an "act of war." Then, one morning in 2012 readers of the New York Times woke up to headlines announcing that the Stuxnet worm had been dispatched into Iran's nuclear facilities to shut down its computer-controlled centrifuges (essential to nuclear fuel processing) by order of Obama and executed by the US and Israel. The info had been leaked to the paper by anonymous "high ranking officials." In other words, the speculation about Stuxnet was at an end. It was an act of war ordered by the president alone.

Similarly, after years of now-you-see-it-now-you-don't stories about drone attacks across the Greater Middle East launched "presumably" by the U.S., the Times (again) carried a remarkable story not only confirming the drone killings -- a technology that had morphed into a policy -- but noting that Obama himself was the Great Bombardier. He had, the newspaper reported, designated himself the final decision-maker on an eyes-only "kill list" of human beings the United States wanted to destroy. It was, in short, the ultimate no-fly list. Clearly, this, too, had previously been classified top-secret material, and yet its disclosure was attributed directly to White House sources.

Now, everyone is upset about the leaks. It's already a real Red v. Blue donnybrook in an election year. Senate Democrats blasted the cyberattack-on-Iran leaks and warned that the disclosure of Obama's order could put the country at risk of a retaliatory strike. Republican Old Man and former presidential candidate Senator John McCain charged Obama with violating national security, saying the leaks are "an attempt to further the president's political ambitions for the sake of his re-election at the expense of our national security." He called for an investigation. The FBI, no doubt thrilled to be caught in the middle of all this, dutifully opened a leak investigation, and senators on both sides of the aisle are planning an inquiry of their own.

The high-level leaks on Stuxnet and the kill list, which have finally created such a fuss, actually follow no less self-serving leaked details from last year's bin Laden raid in Pakistan. A flurry of White House officials vied with each other then to expose ever more examples of Obama's commander-in-chief role in the operation, to the point where Seal Team 6 seemed almost irrelevant in the face of the president's personal actions. There were also "high five" congratulatory leaks over the latest failed underwear bomber from Yemen.

On the Other Side of the Mirror

The Obama administration has been cruelly and unusually punishing in its use of the 1917 Espionage Act to stomp on governmental leakers, truth-tellers, and whistleblowers whose disclosures do not support the president's political ambitions. As Thomas Drake, himself a victim of Obama's crusade against whistleblowers, told me, "This makes a mockery of the entire classification system, where political gain is now incentive for leaking and whistleblowing is incentive for prosecution."

The Obama administration has charged more people (six) under the Espionage Act for the alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined. (Prior to Obama, there were only three such cases in American history, one being Daniel Ellsberg, of Nixon-era Pentagon Papers fame.) The most recent Espionage Act case is that of former CIA officer John Kiriakou (PDF), charged for allegedly disclosing classified information to journalists about the horrors of waterboarding. Meanwhile, his evil twin, former CIA officer Jose Rodriguez, has a best-selling book out bragging about the success of waterboarding and his own hand in the dirty work.

Obama's zeal in silencing leaks that don't make him look like a superhero extends beyond the deployment of the Espionage Act into a complex legal tangle of retaliatory practices, life-destroying threats, on-the-job harassment, and firings. Lots of firings.

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Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran foreign service officer at the State Department, spent a year in Iraq as team leader for two State Department provincial reconstruction teams. Now in Washington and a TomDispatch regular, he writes about Iraq, the Middle East, and U.S. diplomacy at his blog, We Meant Well. Since his book, "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books), was published in 2011, the Department of State has begun termination proceedings against him, after reassigning him to a make-work position and stripping him of his security clearance and diplomatic credentials. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses how Washington has changed when it comes to both leaking and stifling information, click here or download it to your iPod here. This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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