How the Obama administration is making the US media its mouthpiece
Spoonfed national security scoops based on anonymous official leaks – did we learn nothing from Judith Miller's WMD reporting?
by Glenn Greenwald
The Guardian (UK)
of these stories revealed information clearly in the public interest
and sparked important debates. But the way in which they were reported –
specifically, their overwhelming reliance on Obama's own usually
anonymous aides – raise longstanding and still troubling questions about
the relationship between the establishment American media and the
government over which it is supposed to serve as adversarial watchdog.
Obama White House's extreme fixation on secrecy is shaped by a bizarre
paradox. One the one hand, the current administration has prosecuted
double the number of whistleblowers – government employees who leak
classified information showing high-level official wrongdoing – than all previous administrations combined
. Obama officials have also, as ACLU lawyers documented this week in the Guardian
resisted with unprecedented vigor any attempts to subject their conduct
to judicial review or any form of public disclosure, by insisting to
courts that these programs are so secretive that the US government
cannot even confirm or deny their existence without damaging US national security
at the very same time that they invoke broad secrecy claims to shield
their conduct from outside scrutiny, it is Obama officials themselves
who have continuously and quite selectively leaked information about
these same programs to the US media. Indeed, the high
publicity-value New York Times scoops of the past two weeks about covert
national security programs have come substantially from Obama aides
' "kill list" article was based on interviews
with "three dozen of his current and former advisers [who] described Mr
Obama's" central role in choosing whom the CIA
will kill. The paper's scoop that Obama ordered cyber-attacks on Iran
among others, "American officials", including "a senior administration
official" who proudly touted the president's hands-on role in all
measures used to cripple Tehran's nuclear research.
Meanwhile, the same White House that insists in court that it cannot confirm the existence of the CIA's drone program spent this week anonymously boasting to US news outlets
of the president's latest drone kill in Pakistan. And government emails ordered disclosed by a federal court
last month revealed that at the same time as they were refusing to
disclose information about the Bin Laden raid on the grounds that it is
classified, the Obama administration
was secretly meeting with, and shuffling sensitive information to,
Hollywood filmmakers, who are producing what is certain to be a stirring
and reverent film about that raid, originally scheduled to be released
just weeks before the November presidential election.
driving all of this is as obvious as it is disturbing. Each of these
election year leaks depicts Obama as a tough, hands-on, unflinching
commander-in-chief: ruthlessly slaying America's enemies and keeping us
all safe. They simultaneously portray him as a deep moral and
intellectual leader, profoundly grappling with the "writings on war by
Augustine and Thomas Aquinas", as he decides in secret who will live and
die and which countries will be targeted with American aggression.
sum, these anonymous leaks are classic political propaganda: devoted to
glorifying the leader and his policies for political gain. Because the
programs are shrouded in official secrecy, it is impossible for
journalists to verify these selective disclosures. By design, the only
means the public has to learn anything about what the president is doing
is the partial, selective disclosures by Obama's own aides – those who
work for him and are devoted to his political triumph.
process is a recipe for government deceit and propaganda. This was
precisely the dynamic that, in the run-up to the attack on Iraq,
co-opted America's largest media outlets as mindless purveyors of false
government claims. The defining journalistic sin of Judith Miller,
the New York Times
' disgraced WMD reporter, was that she masqueraded the
unverified assertions of anonymous Bush officials as reported fact. As the Times' editors put it in their 2004 mea culpa
, assertions from anonymous sources were "insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged".
scoops about Obama's policies do not sink to the level of
the Judy Miller debacle. For one thing, they contain some impressive
reporting and even disturbing revelations about the conduct of Obama
officials – most notably, that they manipulate casualty figures
and hide civilian deaths from their drone attacks by "counting all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants
another, they include some internal criticism of Obama's practices,
such as the indiscriminate nature of his "signature" drone strikes (when
they see "three guys doing jumping jacks", the CIA concludes it's a
terrorist training camp), and the deceit inherent in his radically broad
definition of "militant". (One "official" is quoted as follows: "It
bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be
militants. They count the corpses and they're not really sure who they
despite those real differences with the Judy Miller travesty, the basic
template is the same. These reporters rely overwhelmingly on government
sources. Their reporting is shaped almost exclusively by the claims of
underlings who are loyal to the president. The journalists have no means
of verifying the assertions they are passing on as fact. And worst of
all, they grant anonymity to Obama's aides who are doing little more
than doing the president's bidding and promoting his political
It is pure "access journalism": these reporters are
given scoops in exchange for their wholly unjustified promise to allow
government officials to propagandize the citizenry without
accountability (that is, from behind the protective shield of
anonymity). By necessity, their journalistic storytelling is shaped by
the perspective of these official sources.
And the journalistic product is predictably one that serves the president's political agenda. Obama's 2008 opponent, Republican Senator John McCain, complained
quite reasonably, that the intent of these recent leaks was to "enhance
President Obama's image as a tough guy for the elections". Worse, as the Columbia Journalism Review
and the media watchdog group FAIR
documented, these stories simply omitted any discussion of many of the
most controversial aspects of Obama's policies, including the risks and
possible illegality of cyber-attacks on Iran and drone strikes in Yemen,
the number of civilian deaths caused by Obama's drone strikes, and the
way those drone attacks have strengthened al-Qaida
by increasing anti-American hatred.
the most pernicious effect of this type of journalism is that it
converts journalists into dutiful messengers of official decrees.
Reporters are trained that they will be selected as scoop-receivers only
if they demonstrate fealty to the agenda of official sources.
Similarly, the Times' David Sanger has long been criticized
uncritical dissemination of misleading US government claims about the
threat from Iran, almost always passed on with the shield of anonymity.
It was unsurprising, then, that it was Sanger who was rewarded with the
valuable scoop about Obama's ordering of cyber-attacks on Iran (a scoop
he is using to sell his new book), and equally unsurprising that the
article he produced was so flattering of Obama's role in this operation.
revealing contrast, consider the treatment meted out to the Times'
James Risen, who has produced scoops that are embarrassing to, rather
than glorifying of, the US government. It was Risen who exposed the Bush
administration's illegal NSA eavesdropping program in 2006, and he also
exposed a highly inept and harmful CIA attempt to infiltrate Iran's
"Sanger writes on successful Iran operation, gets wide access. Risen writes on botched Iranian operation, gets subpoenaed."
is a fundamental tension between serving as adversarial watchdog over
government officials and serving as the primary amplifiers of their
propaganda. The US government has perfected the art of training American
journalists to realize that they will be rewarded if they serve the
latter role, and punished if they do not. Judging by these last several
weeks of high-profile, government-disseminated scoops, it is a lesson
that many journalists have learned all too eagerly.