Over the past several weeks in the US, there has been a series of high-profile media scoops exposing numerous details about President Obama’s covert foreign policy and counterterrorism actions, stories appearing primarily in The New York Times. Americans, for the first time, have been told about Obama’s personal role in compiling a secret “kill list”, which determines who will be targeted for death in Pakistan and Yemen; his ordering of sophisticated cyber-attacks on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities; and operational details about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Each of these stories revealed information clearly in the public interest and sparked important debates. But the way in which they were reported – specifically, their overwhelming reliance on Obama’s own usually anonymous aides – raise longstanding and still troubling questions about the relationship between the establishment American media and the government over which it is supposed to serve as adversarial watchdog.
The Obama White House’s extreme fixation on secrecy is shaped by a bizarre paradox. One the one hand, the current administration has prosecuted double the number of whistleblowers – government employees who leak classified information showing high-level official wrongdoing – than all previous administrations combined. Obama officials have also, as ACLU lawyers documented this week in the Guardian, resisted with unprecedented vigor any attempts to subject their conduct to judicial review or any form of public disclosure, by insisting to courts that these programs are so secretive that the US government cannot even confirm or deny their existence without damaging US national security.