Journalists Who Hate Whistleblowers

A disturbing trend in mainstream U.S. media is how many “star” journalists side with the government in its persecution of whistleblowers and even disdain fellow reporters who expose secret wrongdoing, an attitude that is destroying what’s left of American democracy, as John Hanrahan explains.

By John Hanrahan

Following the late January guilty verdicts in the espionage trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, more proof emerged, if any more were needed, that many elite mainstream journalists abhor whistleblowers and think they should go to prison when they divulge classified information.

One would think that a business that has relied on confidential informants for some of the major investigative stories of this and the previous century would applaud whistleblowers who risk everything on behalf of the people’s right to know what their government is doing in the shadows.

David Gregory, host of NBC's Meet the Press.

David Gregory, host of NBC’s Meet the Press.

But looking back at cases over the last five years, we see the unedifying spectacle of some of the nation’s best-known print and broadcast journalists venting their outrage at whistleblowers’ disclosures and expressing their preference for being kept in the dark by the government in the name of national security.

Most recently, Walter Pincus of The Washington Post and an opinion writer for The Economist both weighed in critically against Sterling after his conviction. Pincus also strongly defended the integrity of the Operation Merlin program, details of which Sterling was accused of leaking to New York Times reporter James Risen, and contended that Risen gave an erroneous portrayal of portions of the program in his 2006 book State of War. (More about these later.)

Sterling, who has never admitted leaking any classified information, nevertheless with his conviction joined the ranks of those whistleblowers and conduits for whistleblowers who have come under fire from prominent journalists for disclosing classified information to the press, e.g., Wikileaks, Julian Assange, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou, and others.

Journalistic heavyweights — New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, Washington Post columnists David Ignatius and Richard Cohen, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, NBC’s former Meet the Press host David Gregory, and the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin — are among the journalistic heavyweights who have in one instance or another come to the defense of the government’s secrecy policies and who have pilloried those making the leaks.

Sounding Like Press Officers

And, in the process, they frequently sounded more like government press officers than independent, skeptical watchdogs of the public interest. Of course, some of these outraged members of press royalty have themselves benefited from “approved” government leaks designed to make the leaking parties look good, the kind of leaks that don’t get prosecuted.

For example, Ignatius, a veteran writer known for his CIA sources and insider information, derided whistleblowers in the aftermath of Snowden’s June 2013 National Security Agency mass surveillance revelations as “malcontents and self-appointed do-gooders who may get security clearances.” He darkly hinted that Snowden “looks these days more like an intelligence defector, seeking haven in a country hostile to the United States, than a whistleblower.”

The ever imaginative Thomas Friedman, in criticizing the NSA leaks, offered up a modern-day version of the Vietnam War’s “we had to bomb the village in order to save it” as the reason to condemn Snowden’s revelations. [Read it here.]

In Friedman’s telling, Americans must not overly concern themselves about our government spying on citizens and must accept a curtailment of privacy and civil liberties today in order to protect the nation and ward off a repeat of 9/11, which, if it occurred, would lead to an even more serious crackdown on civil liberties.

As he wrote: “[W]e don’t live in a world any longer where our government can protect its citizens from real, not imagined, threats without using big data under constant judicial review. It’s not ideal. But if one more 9/11-scale attack gets through, the cost to civil liberties will be so much greater.” Yes, a little authoritarianism today will forestall really big authoritarianism down the line.

We have even witnessed some journalists suggesting that Glenn Greenwald be charged with crimes for being the primary reporter of Snowden’s NSA disclosures, most notably, NBC’s David Gregory. (Gregory has snottily referred to Greenwald as someone who “claims that he’s a journalist”, as if true journalists are only those, like Gregory, who always bow to government authority.)

In June 2013, two weeks after the Snowden revelations, Gregory asked Greenwald on Meet the Press: “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” [See the video how Greenwald demolished Gregory.]

Over the years, Greenwald, first with Salon and The Guardian and now with The Intercept, has been the most vigilant documenter of the hostility of many in the mainstream press to whistleblowers and their support for secrecy in all matters connected to whatever the government claims involves a national security issue. [See, for example, his 2010 column on the reaction of many journalists, politicians and others to the Wikileaks disclosures.]

Mocking the Muckrakers

There is also the example of Bill Keller, then executive editor of The New York Times, who famously trashed Julian Assange in the Sunday Times Magazine in early 2011. Although Wikileaks provided a horde of secret documents that the Times used for major news stories, Keller, nevertheless, decided to do a gossipy hit-job on Assange, certainly one of the most peculiar acts of journalistic ingratitude and dumping of one’s source in the modern age.

In Sterling’s case, a Jan. 29 article on the “Democracy in America” blog of The Economist came up with a particularly disturbing headline: “Why locking up leakers makes sense.” It was signed with the initials D.R., per The Economist’s tradition of not disclosing full names in bylines.

The anonymous blogger takes a sort of “I’m-all-right-Jack-f-you” attitude toward whistleblowers in their dealings with reporters. Noting that James Risen was excused by the Justice Department from testifying in the Sterling case after making it clear that he would not name his sources for a botched CIA nuclear-component-designs-for-Iran operation that he described in his 2006 book State of War, the Economist article stated:

“The conflict between society’s desire for a vigorous free press that holds government to account and its need for the state to keep secrets from foreign enemies can never be resolved. But Mr. Risen’s reprieve and Mr. Sterling’s conviction could shift the balance in the right direction.”

Let that sink in: A writer for a magazine adjudged in journalistic circles to be a serious, prestigious publication, says it strikes a nice balance to have a whistleblower go to jail. The writer skims over the fact that this reprieve for Risen was the result of a policy only recently adopted by outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder and that today’s policy can change from one administration to the next, or even from one attorney general to another in the same administration.

There was no binding precedent set in Risen being let off the hook; there is no guarantee that the next brave reporter who refuses to name a source in a national security case won’t end up in jail. And no guarantee that reporter won’t be indicted as a co-conspirator if an attorney general decides to cross that line.

In this regard, the Obama administration has already indicated that reporters who benefit from classified leaks can be considered partners in an illegal activity, as was divulged in 2013 in the investigation of a 2009 national security leak to Fox News reporter James Rosen. Rosen was described as a co-conspirator in a government investigator’s affidavit seeking a search warrant to obtain Rosen’s personal e-mails in a leaks case involving North Korea’s nuclear weapons testing.

Stephen Kim, a State Department official with particular expertise in North Korea’s nuclear program, was subsequently indicted and pleaded guilty in April 2014 to one count under the Espionage Act of divulging classified information to Rosen. Kim’s case marked an especially egregious misuse of the Espionage Act, as reported by Peter Maass in The Intercept here.

Rehabilitating Merlin

Also in the Sterling trial aftermath, Walter Pincus, the Washington Post’s veteran national security reporter, weighed in with the journalistic equivalent of an amicus brief in support of the bizarre CIA scheme, Operation Merlin.

The CIA’s plan, as Risen’s State of War discloses, was to give flawed nuclear weapons component designs to the Iranians in the hope the supposedly clueless recipients would waste years going down this wrong path. Pincus asserts, as did CIA witnesses at trial, that Operation Merlin, far from being botched and possibly even helpful to the Iranians in their nuclear research, as Risen portrayed it, was really a marvelous success until its cover was blown with the publication of State of War.

Pincus’s argument that Risen got it wrong dovetails nicely with the CIA’s effort to rehabilitate what Risen described as “what may have been one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA.”

A May 2013 Politico article stressed Pincus’s closeness to the CIA and that agency’s point of view, quoting Post columnist Dana Milbank as saying: “Walter conveys the sense of what the intelligence community is thinking on any given subject.” Yes, he does.

Even before the Sterling case came to trial, Pincus had displayed animosity toward whistleblowers and some reporters’ dealings with them. He had even said it’s fine for the FBI to get secret warrants to rummage through reporters’ telephone records in investigating leaks, as was the case with six Associated Press reporters and editors. [See here and here.]

And in the month after Snowden’s June 2013 NSA disclosures, Pincus penned a speculative, innuendo-filled column, the gist of which was what he saw as the sinister possibility that Julian Assange, Wikileaks, Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras had all colluded with Snowden to leak secret documents for them to publish.

Greenwald challenged Pincus’s piece over much of a two-day period before the Post finally appended multiple corrections to the article that shot down the key “conspiracy” points Pincus had laid out.

Obama’s Obsession

Even at this late date, with a record number of at least eight individuals charged by the Obama administration under the 1917 Espionage Act (compared to three such prosecutions for all of Obama’s predecessors combined), many prominent journalists can’t see, or won’t admit, or don’t believe, that an attack on whistleblowers is also an attack on the press and on the First Amendment.

They appear either not to care or to have scant awareness of the chilling effect on the symbiotic relationship between investigative reporters and their sources every time whistleblowers are charged or convicted for crimes that could land them in prison for decades, if not a lifetime.

They also appear to accept at face value the stories spun by the CIA, the NSA, the Pentagon or other members of the vast U.S. national security state apparatus. It matters not to them the number of times those agencies have been shown to be liars, whether it be over non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or the extent of the vast surveillance operations directed at American citizens and people worldwide.

Why do these stars of the news media so readily brush off concerns about our dangerous warfare/surveillance state revealed by Snowden, Manning and the others? Why do they cheer on the government’s crackdown on unauthorized leaks and tell us surveillance and the diminishment of our civil liberties is really for our own good in a scary world, rather than side with the Bill of Rights and the handful of other journalists and whistleblowers who expose secrets that people in a free society should have the right to know?

Why do they sound as if they are angling for a position on the National Security Council or membership in the Council on Foreign Relations, rather than aspiring to be another I.F. Stone (who lived by the tenet, “all governments lie”) or Edward R. Murrow or Seymour Hersh?

James Risen, of course, “gets” why whistleblowers are vital to investigative reporting and a free press, as he explained to an unsympathetic David Gregory on “Meet the Press” shortly after Snowden’s disclosures in June 2013. [See cringe-worthy video excerpts here of Gregory and correspondent Andrea Mitchell lecturing to one of the premiere investigative reporters of this generation why whistleblowers like Snowden are so dangerous.]

Risen fielded his colleagues’ pro-secrecy, anti-whistleblower comments deftly, pointing out to them the obvious: “The only reason we’ve been having these public debates” over surveillance and civil liberties “and that we’re now sitting here talking about this is because of a series of whistleblowers. That the government has never wanted any of this reported, never wanted any of it disclosed.

“If it was up to the government over the last ten years, this surveillance infrastructure would have grown enormously with no public debate whatsoever. And so every time we talk about how someone is a traitor for disclosing something, we have to remember the only reason we’re talking about it is because of it.”

Given the co-dependency of confidential sources and journalists, it would be worthwhile to remind mainstream reporters and editors that when it comes to investigative reporting you, too, are a species of whistleblower. And when a whistleblower goes to jail, a part of our press freedom goes to jail, too.

John Hanrahan is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for The Washington Post, The Washington Star, UPI and other news organizations. He also has extensive experience as a legal investigator. Hanrahan is the author of Government by Contract and co-author of Lost Frontier: The Marketing of Alaska. He has written extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. [This article originally appeared at ExposeFacts.org.]

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14 comments for “Journalists Who Hate Whistleblowers

  1. Tom Welsh
    March 25, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Thanks for this fine expose of a scandalous situation. I suppose journalists are people too, and when the going gets tough they like to curl up into a ball and seek a safe dark place. It’s clear that telling the truth gets you persecuted by government and employers, hated by most of the public, and as likely as not unemployable. It’s hardly surprising (though sad) that there turn out to be so many weak sisters.

  2. Joe Tedesky
    March 25, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    Two people come to mine, Gary Webb and Michael Hastings.

  3. Dogtowner
    March 25, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    “New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, Washington Post columnists David Ignatius and Richard Cohen, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, NBC’s former Meet the Press host David Gregory, and the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin [sic] are among the journalistic heavyweights . . .”

    You are too kind. Anyone who considers these men journalists, let alone heavyweights, is being incredibly generous in their appraisal.

    • dave johnson
      March 25, 2015 at 11:05 pm

      I recently saw Thomas Friedman referred to as a moral imbecile. That is the best description of the man. There is an expression that a stopped clock is right twice a day. Thomas Friedman is a stopped clock that is never right. The man is not a journalist; he is a parrot who repeats any lie the establishment wants no matter how bizarre or outlandish. Thomas Friedman is to journalism what Dane Cook is to comedy- a fraud.

      • Teejay
        March 26, 2015 at 10:43 pm

        I had high regard for Friedman as a reporter and a semi-co-host at Face the Nation and even liked his columns (steal this speech). Sometime after Bush43 took office he seemed less and less worth the time (suck on this). Matt Taibbi’s ridicule of Friedman’s meaningless metaphors sealed it for me.

      • Gregory Kruse
        March 27, 2015 at 7:16 pm

        That is funnier than anything Dane Cook ever uttered.

  4. F. G. Sanford
    March 25, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    I wonder how many people read this, and thought back 40 or 50 years instead of 5 or 6. How long has it been since ‘honest’ journalism has been anything but the exception to the rule? (Robert Parry and a very few others number among the exceptions.) I had to look the guy up, because my memory was fuzzy. Penn Jones, Jr. was they guy’s name. A decorated WWII hero who came home and ran a small town Texas newspaper, Jones did something the Warren Commission never expected most Americans to do: he read the report. Embarking on a journey to interview primary witnesses, Jones began to corroborate the obvious contradictions, omissions and flat out falsehoods. The hair-brained “Magic Bullet” theory, he surmised, was magic bull***t. He also noted a troubling corollary: primary witnesses began to die mysterious deaths. He published a compendium of these deaths called, “Pardon My Grief”. The phenomenon continued, requiring three more volumes before he concluded the project. Eventually, his newspaper was firebombed. When it was revealed to the public that the assassination had been filmed, demands for a public viewing were denied. Dan Rather, a ‘trusted’ up and coming journalist, was chosen to view the film and report his observations to the public. With the guiltiest look on his face I have ever seen, he forced himself to say, “The President’s head was thrown violently down and forward”. A few years later, a courageous Dorothy Kilgallen began interviewing witnesses close to the case. Armed with a lead that a credible source placed David Ferrie, Lee Oswald, Jack Ruby and Officer J.D. Tippett together at the Carousel Club two weeks before the ‘big event’, she attended Ruby’s trial and eventually got an exclusive private interview. After confiding with several friends and associates that she intended to, “blow the case wide open”, Dorothy was herself found dead under mysterious circumstances. More recent examples of dead journalists abound, but Dorothy’s case is a ‘sine qua non’ example of American complacency and apparent lack of courage to question an “official” narrative. This has only gotten worse. Today, Americans are willing to believe that a journalist committed suicide by shooting himself in the head – twice! So, is David Gregory any more or less cowardly than any other “talking hair-do” who insults our intelligence on a daily basis? Until Americans find the courage to demand better, we’ll continue to accept this swill. But I urge you to do yourself a favor: Go to YouTube and type in “Dan Rather Zapruder Film”. See for yourself. Liars on the evening news are nothing new.

    • Joe Tedesky
      March 25, 2015 at 9:16 pm

      F.G. you forgot the greatest journalist of all time, Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly was at George de Mohrenschildt front door when the famous ex-Oswald handler blew his brains out. Now, that’s some awesome reporting. It’s the ‘No Spin Zone’ don’t ya know!

  5. yo momma
    March 25, 2015 at 4:31 pm

    Some of these NSA whistleblower stories are the longest-running stories in history. There is NEVER any new information. By the way, the vast majority of outlets distributing these stories are mainstream. The whole whistleblower op shows and has zero regard for the general public when they know full well there are scores of people out there being persecuted who don’t have (or want) an ounce of fame.

    They endear themselves to the same cadre of “whistleblower” reporters. Jason Leopold, Glenn Greenwald, Molly Crabapples, blah blah blah. So, to say that the mainstream media doesn’t love the whistleblower cadre is an oxymoron. I have never seen an old story rehashed and distributed by the mainstream media as much at that one. When I saw Greenwald’s ties to Las Vegas, I was done with it. It’s a city that compromises everything, without exception.

    Are you so naive to think that if the government really wanted all of this to stop, it wouldn’t? If you want to read enormous love letters to intel read Vice. Infowars is another intel op. or controlled opposition/gatekeeping operation. Maybe the mainstream media isn’t siding with government so much as tiring of the same old stories being recycled over and over.

    There is NO such thing as independent journalists. Anyone with a lot of visibility works work for the same system. They’re all striving to create the illusion that they are the public interest at heart.

    Really, all of them – including the whistleblowers – have egos far too huge to truly reveal the extend of the damage being done every day to the average person. They care about their own personal stories. That’s it.

    I don’t hate them. I simply see them for what they are. They are human. But true public advocates?

    Not in the least. Sorry.

    • Rob Roy
      March 25, 2015 at 9:48 pm

      yo mamma, “NEVER any new information” ???… apparently you don’t read the new information that comes out with regularity from the Snowden cache, and other excellent investigative sources. Are you being paid by the government who lie on a daily basis, such as, say, Victoria Nuland or some such? I choose her at random as indicative of government workers who lie every time they open their mouths and who must be revealed by these journalists you think you know, NOT the MSM who are just magpies. Shall we just believe the lap dog reporters who simply repeat the “official hasbara?” If you categorize all reporters with the same tarred brush, you really don’t get out much. Do you put Seymour Hersh in that category? Bill Moyers? Robert Parry, Ali Abunimah, Stephen F. Cohen, Gil Maguire, Jeremy Scahill, et. al.? These are NOT people with “huge egos” who are pushing their own agenda; they really do inform the public in spite of the endless government threats and scorn heaped upon them by folks like you. If the reporters are as shallow as you say, why do we get to know anything at all the government doesn’t want us to know. Thank god for alternate news sources. Without it I wouldn’t know the terror rained daily upon the Palestinians by the Israelis, the deliberate murdering of Arab children by the IDF, the murdering of five Iranian scientists by the Massod not long ago, how the coup really came about in the Ukraine, how Putin has been innocent through the whole mess the U.S. has created, how Iran doesn’t want a nuclear weapon and never has, how the BIS and the Bilderberg Group pull the strings behind our government, why the U.S. is tearing up the Middle East, why the wars are endless and will continue to be endless, how these god-awful Free Trade agreements (TPP, TTIP, TiSA, etc.) are going to destroy the earth and any environmental laws in its path, and force all the involved countries to give up any rights (patents for example) whatsoever. and their people ruined simply by corporate greed, how we have lost so many civil rights, there may be no going back to any kind of democracy. Do you really think we get any such information through the ‘regular’ MSM press? No way. It takes real journalists…the kind you say don’t exist. The regular unknown people out there you say are being persecuted are the very people these real journalist are speaking up for, you silly. Do you think Obama will have the guts to pardon Chelsea Manning before leaving office. Probably not. Our president is the most secretive so far and has punished more whistleblowers than any other president instead of doing the right thing and heaping praise upon their heads. Notice how all the wrong people go to jail? So much for transparency, honesty and integrity. Again, thank god for the journalists you seem to despise.

  6. dave johnson
    March 25, 2015 at 10:52 pm

    It’s so much easier to regurgitate government and corporate press releases. After all the government and big corporations would never lie. Would they? And if you follow the party line you get invited to all of the elite parties in Georgetown.

  7. AJM
    March 26, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    You should know better. Not a single anti-whistleblower “journalist” you name in the article (listed below) has any right to the title. Until you can call them what they are, propagandists for an imperialist, authoritarian, extreme right wing fascist criminal organization you will be more of an ennabler than an alternative.

    Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, Washington Post columnists David Ignatius and Richard Cohen, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, NBC’s former Meet the Press host David Gregory, and the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin —

  8. rod erick
    March 26, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    Watching from afar some of us are quite pleased with these developments. The US is totally and utterly corrupt. All of its institutions – law, religion, government, economics, education and media and entertainment – are rotten. “But if God wills that every drop of blood drawn with the lash should be repaid with another drawn by the sword….” You deserve this…. really you do.

  9. Fred Jakobcic
    March 30, 2015 at 10:38 am

    I>F.Stone is often sited as saying All Governments Lie. Why the need to lie, to cover-up, to deceive and why do this for the so-called national security and national interests, which are often of questionable validity. We need whistleblowers to hold governments, and those who carry out their policies, accountable. Why should they not be held so? Those who so meekly go along with this are not doing their job, are only in it for the paycheck and not being responsible journalists.

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