Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Bit of Uninformed Speculation about Obama's Anti-Leaker Campaign

The recent announcement of the verdict in the trial of Bradley Manning has brought President Obama's unusually harsh attitude toward leakers back into the news. Manning is the American soldier who leaked a large set of diplomatic cables and other national security documents to the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks. In its story on the verdict, the New York Times notes once again the now widely-reported fact that he's "one of seven people to be charged in connection with leaking to the news media during the Obama administration; during all previous administrations, there were three."

Obama's civil libertarian critics have long attacked this unprecedented hostility to leaks for the damage it does to press freedom and government accountability as well as the hypocrisy it involves, given the central role his support for transparency played in his 2008 campaign. I generally agree with these complaints, but I want to address a different issue here: just why does this president care so much about prosecuting leakers? The explanations that are usually offered for Obama's other shifts on civil liberties and human rights issues (power corrupts/acculturation into the national-security elite, political concerns about looking weak, classified knowledge of the terrorist threat) don't seem to apply here; there's no reason to think that any of these factors affect him more than other presidents, but he's been much, much tougher on media leaks than any of them have. I obviously have no inside information on this issue, but I do want to float a theory I've been mulling over that may offer at least a partial explanation of this phenomenon.

It seems to me that Barack Obama differs from almost all previous American presidents in having a deep emotional identification with outsiders, marginalized groups, and those who resist the oppression of established institutions. The fact that he spent several years as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago is evidence for this notion, as is the language of his public remarks, especially when he speaks without a script. For example, his powerful recent speech on the George Zimmerman trial sought to sympathetically portray for ordinary Americans the perspective of people who reasonably saw police and courts not as disinterested guardians of public order but as potential threats to their freedom and safety.

One might think that a president who saw himself this way would be less inclined to prosecute whistleblowers than his predecessors, but I think Obama's self-conception as a friend of the oppressed actually has the opposite effect. Because he thinks of himself as deeply committed to helping the marginalized and powerless, he doesn't see his administration as liable to commit serious abuses and perhaps also thinks that anyone who noticed any would receive a fair hearing inside the government. The fact that government employees with troubled consciences and crusading reporters - two groups who Obama likely thinks ought to be on his side - are trying to expose his own misconduct threatens a self-understanding that's probably pretty central to how he sees his mission in politics and in life, and this makes him want to lash out at them in a way that other presidents haven't.

I doubt that this explanation is fully adequate, but it seems to shed some light on a question I haven't seen much explicit discussion of. I also think the feature of Obama's personality I've highlighted may have something to with the other policies civil libertarians tend to criticize, but that's a topic for another post.

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