As the media focuses almost exclusively on Edward Snowden’s possible whereabouts, more details on the Obama administration’s crackdown on whistleblowers have come to light. A new investigative report has revealed the administration’s crackdown on leaks extends far beyond high-profile cases like Snowden or the Associated Press, to the vast majority of government agencies and departments — even those with no connection to intelligence or national security. For nearly two years, the White House has waged a program called “Insider Threat” that forces government employees to remain on the constant lookout for their colleagues’ behavior and to report their suspicions. It targets government officials who leak any information, not just classified material. All of this leads McClatchy to warn: “The [Insider Threat] program could make it easier for the government to stifle the flow of unclassified and potentially vital information to the public, while creating toxic work environments poisoned by unfounded suspicions and spurious investigations.” We’re joined by the reporter who helped break the story, Jonathan Landay, senior national security and intelligence reporter for McClatchy Newspapers. Landay also discusses his reporting that revealed how drone strikes carried out in Pakistan over a four-year period ran contrary to standards set forth publicly by President Obama.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
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Aaron Maté: As the media focuses almost exclusively on Edward Snowden’s possible whereabouts, more details on the Obama administration’s crackdown on whistleblowers have come to light. Late last week, the White House publicly disclosed it filed espionage charges against the intelligence contractor for exposing the government’s mass surveillance of telephone and Internet data in the U.S. and abroad. Snowden becomes the seventh person to be charged by the Obama administration under the nearly 100-year-old Espionage Act. That’s more than double all previous presidents combined.
The crackdown on leaks has also extended to journalists. It emerged last month the administration seized the phone records of Associated Press reporters and the emails of Fox News’s James Rosen as part of probes into the leaking of classified information. Speaking at the White House, President Obama said he made “no apologies” for seeking to crack down on leaks.
President Barack Obama: Leaks related to national security can put people at risk. It can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers, who are in various dangerous situations that are easily compromised, at risk. I make no apologies, and I don’t think the American people would expect me, as commander-in-chief, not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed.
Aaron Maté: That’s President Obama speaking last month.
Well, a new investigative report has revealed the administration’s crackdown on leaks extends far beyond high-profile cases like Snowden or the Associated Press, to the vast majority of government agencies and departments, even those with no connection to intelligence or national security.
Amy Goodman: For nearly two years, the White House has waged a program called Insider Threat that forces government employees to remain on the constant lookout for their colleagues’ behavior and to report their suspicions. According to McClatchy news, it targets government officials who leak any information, not just classified material.
And beyond places like the National Security Agency or the Pentagon, Insider Threat also covers employees in agencies or departments like the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration, the Departments of Education and Agriculture. As part of the program, staffers at the Department of Agriculture and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have taken an online tutorial called “Treason 101,” which instructs them to look out for employees fitting the psychological profile of spies. The Department of Education has told its employees that, quote, “certain life experiences … might turn a trusted user into an insider threat.” These experiences include, quote, “stress, divorce, financial problems” or “frustrations with co-workers or the organization.”
In addition to demanding that government workers monitor their colleagues’ behavior, the Insider Threat Program even encourages penalties against those who fail to report what they see. And it regards leaks to the media as a form of espionage. A Pentagon strategy document instructs agency superiors, quote, “Hammer this fact home … leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States.” All this leads McClatchy to warn, quote, “The [Insider Threat] program could make it easier for the government to stifle the flow of unclassified and potentially vital information to the public, while creating toxic work environments poisoned by unfounded suspicions and spurious investigations.”
For more, we’re joined from Washington, D.C., by Jonathan Landay, the senior national security and intelligence reporter for McClatchy Newspapers. He broke the story on the scope of Insider Threat along with Marisa Taylor. Their piece is headlined “Obama’s Crackdown Views Leaks as Aiding Enemies of U.S.”
Jonathan, just lay it out for us, what this is creating.
Jonathan Landay: Well, this is a program that was launched in the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosures by Private Manning. It follows also the shooting at Fort Hood by Major Hasan—allegedly by Major Hasan. And it’s an attempt—another attempt by the government—and this follows a long history of attempts by the government—to crack down on leaks of classified information. The problem here is, though, that the definition, or at least the instructions from the White House to the agencies in implementing the program, is exceedingly broad and has left many of the details to the agencies and departments themselves to implement. And some of these departments, we’ve found, are not only going after leaks of classified information, but leaks, unauthorized leaks, of any information at all. It involves what we—what appears to be profiling by workers of their co-workers and admonitions to supervisors that they had better make sure that any suspicious behavior is reported, because that could be a sign of a security risk among their staff.
And beyond that, it exhorts employees of these federal agencies, at least within the Pentagon and other agencies, to treat leaks like espionage. In other words, if anybody leaks to the press, that’s like leaking to the enemies of the United States. We asked the Pentagon, “How do you accommodate something like the leak of the Pentagon Papers with this kind of policy, i.e. the leak of information that showed that successive American governments had misled and lied to their people about the conduct of the war in Indochina?” And we received no answer, no direct answer to our question, from the Pentagon.
Aaron Maté: Jonathan, you spoke to a senior Pentagon official who is critical of Insider Threat, and he says, quote, “It’s about people’s profiles, their approach to work, how they interact with management. Are they cheery? Are they looking at Salon.com or The Onion during their lunch break? This is about ‘The Stepford Wives.'” That’s a reference to the movie of the ’70s. What are you hearing about what kind of a work environment this is creating in government?
Jonathan Landay: Well, it’s already—the work environment is already one where people who used to talk to me—and, I suspect, other reporters—are no longer willing to talk about it—talk to us, simply for fear that they’re going to encounter retaliation for talking to a journalist, and not disclosing simply—not disclosing classified information, but simply trying to give us context—at least in my experience, trying to give me context about stories that we report normally, trying to get an idea of where the U.S. government—how the U.S. government views a particular issue. They’re not willing—at least some of the people that I know are no longer willing to even do that. So, the environment, as a result of this, seems to be pretty toxic and seems to be—there seems to be the possibility or the distinct possibility that it could get even more toxic. I think—
Amy Goodman: Where does The Onion fit into this, Jonathan?
Jonathan Landay: I think that this was just a comment by this particular individual, because The Onion is seen to be perhaps very critical of the government. It’s something that perhaps some government employees like to look at or like to read during their lunch breaks. And he—I think he was being—he was semi-serious, where he was saying, if an employee is found to be reading The Onion at lunchtime, that that could be taken as perhaps a sign of anti-government bias on the part of that employee, and that they need to have their eye—you know, people need to keep their eyes on this person.
Amy Goodman: Can you tell us who Ilana Greenstein is?
Jonathan Landay: Ilana Greenstein is a former CIA covert officer who believes that she was falsely accused of being a security risk. And even after going through the proper channels for reporting what she believed were violations of security and other matters while she was serving in Iraq, she even wrote to the then-director of the CIA, Michael Hayden. She went—she and her attorney wrote to the CIA inspector general. And instead, she felt that she was being retaliated against, and she resigned from the agency.
Aaron Maté: Jonathan, you write that this program could create a form of groupthink, a form of lack of creative thinking that helped lead to the invasion of Iraq?
Jonathan Landay: This was—this was Ilana’s observation. This was a story that I covered quite intensely for quite a few years, disclosing a lot of the bogus intelligence that was used to justify the invasion, and her point being, we know that the Senate Intelligence Committee found—I believe it was the Intelligence Committee—found that there was this groupthink within the intelligence community behind the false assessment that Saddam Hussein had reactivated his weapons of mass destruction program. This is the kind of atmosphere that Ilana believes could be created because of the Insider Threat Program, where you have people who are afraid to think outside the box, afraid to challenge whatever the majority opinion is, because it could attract attention to them as being a potential insider threat. This is about profiling, I think, in the end, which we know is pretty problematic.
I think one of the biggest problems here is that the government seems to always react in the wrong way and in an extreme—in an extreme way to this kind of thing, rather than trying to tackle the core of the problem, which is the enormous number of people, almost five million, who have clearances and access to classified material, and a lot of those people are contractors, as well as the problem—and this goes way back to the overclassification by the government of materials. And I think that one of the problems here is that the more there is a perception that the government is doing the wrong thing by cracking down on civil liberties and privacy and doing things like collecting the telephone data of millions of Americans, the greater the chances are going to be that you’re going to have a leak, that there will always be someone who’s going to feel that the government has crossed the lines when it comes to the Constitution and the law, and they’re going to go leak, because they do not trust the prescribed channels within the government for being a whistleblower. We’ve seen what’s happened to whistleblowers—Tom Drake, for instance, you’ve had him on this program—where they have used the—and Ilana Greenstein, who we talked to, who used the proper channels to try and report what they saw as being waste or fraud or abuse, and being retaliated against rather than having their concerns addressed.
Amy Goodman: Jonathan, critics have taken NSA leaker Edward Snowden to task for failing to use official channels to voice his concerns about government channels. This, for example, is House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers speaking Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Rep. Mike Rogers: He went outside all of the whistleblower avenues that were available to anyone in this government, including people who have classified information. We get two or three visits from whistleblowers every single week in the committee, and we investigate every one thoroughly. He didn’t choose that route.
Amy Goodman: Your response to the intelligence chair, Mike Rogers, Jonathan?
Jonathan Landay: My response would be that we’ve—that there is a history of people who have used the internal channels, whistleblower channels within the government, and instead of having their concerns addressed—and those channels, by the way, include going to members of Congress and trying to get members of Congress to address the whistleblower’s concerns. And instead, Congress has not only not taken up some of these cases, but we’ve seen retaliation against whistleblowers for bringing up legitimate concerns about waste, fraud and abuse. And so, there is a distinct lack of trust in Congress, of Congress, of the system.
I think that you can only look at what’s happened with the lack of accountability when it comes to the Bush administration and its so-called—its aggressive interrogation techniques, the use of black sites, the telephone—the warrantless wiretapping of Americans, of telephone conversations, communications by the Bush administration. There has been no accountability at all among the senior people who oversaw all of this, and so you’ve got to ask the question: Well, why would someone lower down the food chain, lower down the ranks, have any trust in this system at all?
Aaron Maté: Jonathan, I wanted to switch gears and ask you about your reporting on drones. You’ve done some extensive work investigating basically how the U.S. has killed far more people than it’s claimed—specifically, targeting people that go beyond the mandate of senior al-Qaeda leaders. Can you talk about what you’ve uncovered?
Jonathan Landay: Yeah—excuse me. I came to—into possession of classified U.S. intelligence community reports on drone attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan. These are the first documents to emerge in public that outline targeting by the CIA drones of alleged and suspected militants in the tribal areas. And what these documents show is that the Obama administration, the president himself, has been—have been pretty economical with the truth about who they were targeting in this—with this program, with this targeted killing program, for—with the limited—and this is prior, goes back to prior to the president’s last speech on the targeted killing program. Prior to that, there had been a limited number of speeches, limited amount of congressional testimony and interviews with the president and some of his top aides about this. And they used a formula in all of these pronouncements. And that formula was they were only targeting confirmed senior operational leaders of al-Qaeda and associated forces who were plotting imminent and significant violent attacks against the United States. And sometimes we would hear “against U.S. interests,” or sometimes we would hear “against the homeland.”
And what these documents showed was that in many cases the CIA actually wasn’t sure or didn’t know who they were targeting. They were targeting unknown, quote-unquote, “militants.” They were going after, quote-unquote, “other militants,” foreign extremists. But it was quite evident from their own estimates of the number of casualties that were being caused in these drone strikes that hundreds of people who they suspected of being militants were being killed in these drone strikes. And the documents that I concentrated on showed most—charted most of the drone strikes in the tribal areas over a period of a year that stretched from September of 2010 to September of 2011, which was the height of the drone strikes. And, you know, almost a quarter, I believe—and I’m reaching back now—of those drone strikes were targeted against non-al-Qaeda groups. And so, it showed that, as I said, that the administration had been not telling or fully disclosing who it was who was targeted, who were being targeted.
Now, I’ve spent time in—I’ve spent a lot of time covering that part of the world. I’ve been into the tribal areas. You know, the fact is that the militants who are based—there are some very bad people who are based up in the tribal areas. Al-Qaeda is up in Waziristan, the Haqqani network, other pretty bad groups. But the fact is, they don’t wear uniforms. They dress the same as the tribe—as ordinary tribesmen up in that area. And that’s an area where ordinary people, ordinary men, military-age men, have long, for centuries, carried weapons. It’s part of their culture. It’s part of their tradition. And so, you have to—these documents raise the question of—specifically about the so-called signature strikes. How do they know that who they were killing actually were militants?
Amy Goodman: Jonathan, we have to wrap, but just very briefly, I presume some of your reporting is based on classified documents that were leaked to you. And I wanted to ask how Insider Threat and all that’s happening right now with Edward Snowden has changed the way you’re doing—or has it—investigative journalism?
Jonathan Landay: Now, I started taking extreme precautions about protecting my sources before the Edward Snowden case. It became quite obvious to me several years ago that there was a chance, because of all of the use of electronics that we use now—the Internet, our cellphones—that there was a chance that my own cellphone could be used to track down who my sources were. So I am now taking extreme precautions. I’m not going to go into exactly what I do. I think it’s obvious what you can do to try and protect yourself. But I began doing that before the Edward Snowden case.
Amy Goodman: Jonathan Landay, I want to thank you for your reporting, for being here, senior national security and intelligence reporter for McClatchy Newspapers. His most recent piece is headlined “Obama’s Crackdown Views Leaks as Aiding Enemies of [the] U.S.”
When we come back, Eve Ensler joins us, talking about the body of the world. Stay with us.