When it was first reported that the Department of Justice was illegally combing through the phone records of Associated Press offices and targeting journalists with secret subpoenas for their communication records, outrage erupted among free press advocates and journalism professionals.
Caught red-handed with the disclosures, Obama's Attorney General Eric Holder was forced to perform damage control, defending the practice against those who said it was a violation of key constitutional protections while saying that future safeguards would be put in place to censure overreach by the DOJ.
On Monday, however, a plea-agreement by a former FBI agent—who disclosed information about a terrorist plot in Yemen to the Associated Press and was discovered after the FBI secretly obtained access to the news agency's phone records—shows that, despite the outrage behind the practice of wiretapping journalists, the man is now heading to prison for a lengthy term.
As the New York Times reports:
Federal investigators said they were able to identify the man, Donald Sachtleben, a former bomb technician, as a suspect in the leak case only after secretly obtaining A.P. reporters’ phone logs, a move that set off an uproar among journalists and members of Congress of both parties when it was disclosed in May.
Mr. Sachtleben, 55, of Carmel, Ind., who was an F.B.I. agent from 1983 until 2008 and was later hired as a contractor, has agreed to serve 43 months in prison for the leak, the Justice Department said. His case is the eighth leak-related prosecution under the Obama administration. Only three such cases were prosecuted under all previous presidents.
However, journalist and political activist Norman Solomon, in a column published on Common Dreams Tuesday morning, says the whole episode exposes how "profoundly despicable" the Obama's attack on government whistleblowers has been. He writes:
The Obama administration’s pernicious goal is to normalize circumstances where journalists can’t credibly promise confidentiality, and potential leakers don’t believe they can have it. The broader purpose is to destroy independent journalism—which is to say, actual journalism—which is to say, freedom of the press.
In addition, Solomon points out the deep hypocrisy of claims by the federal prosecutor in charge of the case, who said the prosecution of Sachtleben demonstrates the government's "deep resolve to hold accountable anyone who would violate their solemn duty to protect our nation’s secrets and to prevent future, potentially devastating leaks by those who would wantonly ignore their obligations to safeguard classified information.”
"There’s something profoundly despicable about a Justice Department that would brazenly violate the First and Fourth Amendments while spying on journalists," writes Solomon, "then claim to be reassessing such policies after an avalanche of criticism—and then proceed... to gloat that those policies made possible a long prison sentence for a journalistic source."
The Obama administration's real message, according to Solomon, is: "This prosecution shows the depth of our contempt for civil liberties. Let this be a lesson to journalists and would-be leakers alike."
As Agence France-Presse recounts, the conviction of Sachtleben is only the latest example of the Obama Justice Department to aggressively target government officials who disclose information to the press:
Although Obama had promised openness when he entered office, his administration has pursued an unprecedented crackdown on leaks from government employees, attempting more prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous administrations.
A US Army private, Bradley Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in prison in August for passing a trove of classified documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
Manning's supporters defended him as a whistleblower trying to shed light on US wars and secret foreign policy making but prosecutors called the soldier a "traitor."
John Kiriakou, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, was charged with leaking secrets after he gave an interview to ABC television describing the use of water boarding in interrogations of terror suspects under the Bush administration.
He pleaded guilty in 2012 to disclosing the name of a covert CIA officer and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
Monday's plea agreement serves as a warning to intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, who has been charged with espionage and condemned for his dramatic disclosures on US electronic surveillance.