POLITICS

Whodunnit? Questions turn to who leaked surveillance stories to media

06/07/2013 12:40 EDT | Updated 08/07/2013 05:12 EDT
WASHINGTON - With two explosive leaks this week about the Obama administration's widespread surveillance practices, questions now turn to who's responsible for providing the information to the media amid already tense relations between the White House and journalists.

James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, has called the leak to Britain's The Guardian about the collection of phone logs from Verizon, the country's biggest wireless carrier, "reprehensible." He added it could cause enduring, irreversible harm to America's ability to ensnare terrorists.

Such a harsh rebuke suggests those responsible could ultimately face the same fate as Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier who leaked a raft of classified military documents to WikiLeaks, said Julian Assange, the founder of the secret-sharing website.

Manning is currently on trial on espionage charges and faces life in prison if convicted. Throughout much of his three-year detainment, Manning has been kept in harsh military detention, including several months in solitary confinement.

"Bradley Manning is facing a capital offence," Assange said on CBS's "This Morning."

"Prosecutors have said they will only ask for life imprisonment, but that is effectively a living death .... Let's ask ourselves whether the whistleblower who has revealed those, and there's more to come, is going, in three years time, to be in exactly the position that Bradley Manning is in today."

Fresh on the heels of the Verizon story came additional reports from the Washington Post and The Guardian about a separate program, code-named PRISM and never before disclosed publicly. Members of Congress who are aware of the program were reportedly bound by oath to keep it confidential.

Used by the National Security Agency and the FBI, the program scours America's major Internet companies for audio, video, photographs, emails and other user account data.

PRISM has zeroed in on companies that include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. Google, Facebook and Yahoo have denied providing the government with direct access to their records.

The latest surveillance uproar comes as U.S. President Barack Obama is already under fire for the Justice Department's seizure of phone and email records from reporters working on national security stories.

Attorney General Eric Holder has pledged to some of the country's biggest news organization that his department will reassess its guidelines on how it investigates reporters during leak probes.

Just a week after issuing those assurances, Holder's department is facing the prospect of having to launch yet another leak investigation. The Department of Justice hasn't yet said whether it's going to probe the latest leaks, but it's expected to.

In testimony to a Senate hearing on Thursday, Holder assured lawmakers that it's government employees, not journalists, who are the targets of such probes. He added the Justice Department would never prosecute reporters for doing their jobs.

"The department goal in investigating leak cases is to identify and prosecute government officials who jeopardize government secrets," he said.

This time around, the leaks appear to have emanated from government insiders who object to the longstanding surveillance practices, in place since 2006 under former president George W. Bush and his controversial Patriot Act.

The act, borne of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, gives government officials sweeping surveillance powers as they investigate suspected terrorists.

In the very last paragraph of the Post's PRISM story, the paper identified its source as a career intelligence officer with "first-hand experience" with government surveillance systems and "horror at their capabilities."

The paper quotes the source as saying: "They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type."

Glenn Greenwald, an American blogger who broke both stories for The Guardian, told The New York Times that his source is a reader who "knew the views that I had and had an expectation of how I would display them." Greenwald, a civil liberties advocate, has long railed against government surveillance.

The Washington Post joked on Friday that perhaps Obama himself leaked the information given his public comments in California.

"Was President Obama The Leaker?" reads the headline on the tongue-in-cheek piece that takes aim at Obama's failure to do away with any of the Bush-era practices despite railing against them while running for president in 2008.

"I welcome this debate," the president said during an appearance in San Jose earlier Friday.

"I think it's healthy for our democracy. I think it's a sign of maturity, because probably five years ago, six years ago, we might not have been having this debate. And I think it's interesting that there are some folks on the left, but also some folks on the right who are now worried about it who weren't very worried about it when it was a Republican president."

Clapper took the unusual step on Thursday night of declassifying key details about the practices in an effort to tamp down an escalating surveillance scandal that has cast a shadow over the Obama administration and threatens to tarnish the president's legacy.

In his statement, Clapper insisted the efforts were legal, limited in scope and necessary to nab terrorists.

Indeed, the Verizon case marks a difference between Obama and Bush. While the Bush administration also collected phone logs and even conducted wiretaps, it did so without obtaining court orders.

The Obama administration has invoked a section of the Patriot Act, in addition to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, as the basis for a secret court order demanding Verizon's phone call records. There's no indication it's conducting illegal wiretaps.

Congressional leaders say they'll review the law and the surveillance programs.