President Obama has received flak from critics for overseeing the prosecution of more government whistleblowers under the World War I-era Espionage Act than every other administration combined, but according to his top law enforcement official, the Justice Department has been lenient on leaks.
Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday defended his agency’s record on unauthorized disclosures, saying that it could have pursued more whistleblowers than it has.
“We have tried to be appropriately sensitive in bringing those cases that warranted prosecution,” he said. “We have turned away, I mean, turned away substantially greater number of cases that were presented to us where prosecution was sought.”
Holder was responding to reporters’ questions at an event at the National Press Club.
In a related matter, the outgoing Attorney General declined to answer a query about a possible plea deal involving former National Security Agency contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden.
“I’ll simply say no comment,” he remarked, to laughter from the audience.
Speaking more broadly on the issue of Espionage Act prosecutions and leaks, Holder said that policies formulated last summer and implemented during the case involving New York Times reporter James Risen and the now-imprisoned former CIA employee Jeffrey Sterling exemplified “how the Justice Department can proceed.”
Risen did not appear to be amused by the claim. He took to Twitter to retweet an observation made by Freedom of the Press Executive Director Trevor Timm.
“New DOJ model: Harass and spy on journalist for years, make him spend a fortune in legal fees, drop case last second,” Timm had tweeted.
Another person affected by the Obama administration’s dealings with intelligence community whistleblowers, too, expressed dismay on Twitter with the statement. Former NSA analyst Thomas Drake questioned whether it was actually a model “suppressing w’blowers & NatSec press reprting.”
“Wudda sed same in my case if jury had convicted me?” he rhetorically asked, abbreviating his language to express frustration in the confines of Twitter’s 140 character per-post constraints.
Holder stressed, however, that the cases have been instrumental in targeting “people who are disclosing, for instance, the identities of people who work in our intelligence agencies.”
“I also think there’s a question for you all, for members of the press,” he continued. “As we’ve asked ourselves when it comes to national surveillance, simply because we have the ability to do certain things, should we?”
Holder went on to describe a hypothetical scenario–“an extreme example, perhaps unfair,” he noted—involving a reporter and “the existence of the Manhattan project.”
“Is that something that should have been disclosed,” he asked—a question that would probably be answered with a qualified “yes” from American historians like the late Howard Zinn, who argued that hundreds of thousands of civilians died needlessly and Cold War hysteria was sparked as a result of the decision to drop the bombs on Japan, in maneuvers that revealed the power of nuclear weaponry to the world.
“We are not in a time of war,” Holder added–a comment that additionally would raise eyebrows among Wikileaks and Snowden, who have been accused of having “blood on their hands” for informing the world what the US government has secretly done in the name of the American public.
“There’s a question the members of the press should ask about whether or not the disclosure of the information has a negative impact on the national security of the nation,” Holder added, claiming that the decision to publish sensitive information is not up to the government—a statement that glosses over his own role overseeing the grand jury investigation of Wikileaks that is still ongoing, as The Washington Post noted last month.
As The Sentinel reported earlier Tuesday, the event had something of a last-chance public relations management feel to it, with the outgoing chief prosecutor also claiming that US Attorneys had three months to internally make the case to bring criminal or civil charges against Wall Street bankers for fraudulent activities that contributed to last decade’s mammoth financial collapse—an argument they have, to this point, failed to make, Holder said. Contrary to those claims, however, are reports in one instance alone that detail how a federal prosecutor in Sacramento was ready to file civil charges against JPMorgan in 2013 before Holder personally intervened to secure a settlement with the bank.