Jill Abramson, New York Times executive editor, criticized the Obama administration’s aggressive prosecutions over leaks during a speech to journalists in Boston on Saturday, warning that White House policy “threatens to rob the public of vital information.’’
Abramson, who took over as executive editor last September, said several reporters who have covered national security for decades have told her that “the environment has never been tougher or information harder to dislodge. One Times reporter told me, ‘The environment in Washington has never been more hostile to reporting,’ ’’ she said.
Abramson was the keynote speaker at the Investigative Reporters & Editors annual conference, which drew 1,200 journalists. The Boston Globe, which is owned by the New York Times Co., hosted the conference.
Abramson’s comments were made in the context of recent articles in The New York Times about the White House use of drones, or unmanned planes, to carry out targeted killings, and of cyber warfare, including computer worms, against Iran.
Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have urged the administration to investigate the recent disclosures of national security secrets, while the president has denied that his White House team is the source of the leaks.
Earlier this month, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. assigned two United States attorneys to lead separate criminal investigations into the recent disclosures. But some Republican members of Congress have called upon the administration to go further and appoint a special prosecutor.
Among the recent disclosures by news outlets: an Al Qaeda plot to bomb an airliner failed because of a double agent; a joint American-Israeli computer virus sabotaged Iran’s nuclear centrifuges; and Obama has played a central role in approving a list of terrorism suspects to be killed by drone strikes.
The New York Times, the Associated Press, Newsweek, and other news media outlets have published the reports; some were gathered from books written by Times and Newsweek journalists.
Abramson pointed out that the Obama administration has mounted six prosecutions involving leaks under the 1917 Espionage Act, double the number under all previous administrations combined.
“The United States has never had an official secrets act,’’ she said. “This would be antithetical to our democratic values. But it seems time to me to ask whether a once obscure espionage law from long ago is now being used to substitute for one.’’
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
At the same time, legal scholar Geoffrey Stone has concluded that there has not been any instance when the media’s publication of “a legitimate but newsworthy government secret has gravely harmed the national interest,’’ she said.
Secrets, sources, and leaks have long been part of Washington’s culture, she said, despite recent outrage by politicians.
“Prominent Democrats complained that the sources who disclosed details and aspects of these operations to the Times had endangered national security by letting America’s enemies know too much about secret programs,’’ she said, referring to the drone and cyber warfare stories. “Republicans, meanwhile, accused the Obama administration itself of leaking sensitive details in order to portray the president as an active and able protector of the national security, a kind of superhero president. Both, clearly, can’t be true.’’
Yet, she said, these subjects are crucial to the public interest.
“Cyber warfare is a new battlefield, where there are no agreements regulating the use of malware and viruses. So doesn’t the public need information to evaluate this new kind of battle, especially when it is waged in its name? Furthermore, when the existence of drone and cyber attacks are widely known but officially classified, informed public discussion of critical questions is stifled,’’ she said.
Still Abramson acknowledged the stories are delicate and said the newspaper is careful.
“Sensitive stories do not fall into our hands. We often report on them for months. We double-check and triple-check. We examine the motives of our sources and seek out sources with different points of view. . . No article on a classified program gets published until the responsible officials have been given a fair opportunity to comment. And if they argue that publication of a story presents a danger to national security, we put things on hold and give them a respectful hearing. Sometimes we have agreed to omit certain details which are not central to the reader’s understanding of the story. Sometimes we have held stories while we report more deeply,’’ she explained.
Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.