Is Revealing Secrets Akin to Drunk Driving? Intelligence Official Says So

The intelligence community’s top lawyer on Friday defended the Obama administration’s hostility toward revelations of national security secrets — and likened the act of publishing them to drunk driving.

Robert Litt, general counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, used the drunk-driving analogy to excuse his inability to cite any specific harm to individuals by news stories based on leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

“We ban drunk driving in this country,” Litt asserted, arguing on a panel with four top news editors that not every crime has an identifiable victim.

Litt made the same argument earlier this week, at an event in Washington for Sunshine Week: “Not every drunk driver causes a fatal accident, but we ban drunk driving because it increases the risk of accidents.  In the same way, we classify information because of the risk of harm, even if no harm actually can be shown in the end from any particular disclosure.”

But Litt’s analogy did not go over well with the other members of the panel on Friday. New Yorker editor David Remnick fired back, incredulously: “Is journalism drunk driving??”

Remnick said that by Litt’s logic, any reporting on leaked material would cause damage. “Your balance is we do nothing,” he said.

Litt, who has become the point person for the administration’s defense of its surveillance programs, was speaking at a journalistic symposium on  Sources and Secrets held in the New York Times  auditorium and sponsored by the George Polk Awards. Litt responded combatively to the event’s main theme: the importance of holding the government accountable.

“There ought to be an adversarial approach between the press and the government,” Litt said. “But,” he added with a touch of menace, “it’s a two-way process.”

Litt scoffed at the repeatedly expressed view during the conference that Obama administration prosecutions of journalistic sources — which has reached unprecedented levels — has chilled investigative reporting. “Somehow the press has managed to struggle on” he said, dismissively.

And he provoked another dramatic reaction from his fellow panelists when he said journalists should be more heedful of government officials when they warn of consequences to national security, calling for “a little more humility from the press.”

“The idea of humility when it comes to the press at this moment is, I think, obscene,” said Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel.

“I’m squirming over the desire that we have more humility,” said New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, explaining that Times editors “agonize” over decisions to publish material government officials say could cause damage. She then went on to cite, as an example of journalistic responsibility, her paper’s highly controversial decision to suppress  its expose of President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program for more than a year — until after the 2004 election. That decision is considered by some to be a case study in how the Bush administration intimidated the press after 9/11.

Litt also asked the editors: “Who elected you?”

He said the intelligence community is subject to congressional accountability. “People may question whether that accountability is good enough, is properly structured. But we still have that accountability,” he said. “The media is not accountable to anything but the number of clicks on a website.”

Remnick responded: “Not all arbiters in society are elected. That too is part of the democratic society we live in.”

Earlier in the day, New York Times national security reporter James Risen, who has become a symbol of the Obama administration’s assault on national-security journalism, called on his fellow journalists to “stand up against the administration” and its attempt to control the press. Risen is fighting a federal order to testify in the trial of a former CIA official charged with leaking classified information to Risen about a botched plot against the Iranian government. He acknowledged that many journalists shy away from political action, but said the industry is “really confronting a change in the landscape.”

Government officials, he said, are “trying to create a path for accepted reporting — and that if you as a reporter go outside those parameters, you as a reporter will be punished, and those sources will be prosecuted.”

The prospect of Risen’s imprisonment, rather than giving up his source, hung heavy over the gathering. Risen said that government officials “want to narrow the field of national security reporting,” making it more and more difficult for reporters to write stories “outside the boundaries that the administration itself sets down.”

And what is outside those parameters?

“Any story that doesn’t make them look good,” he said.

“I think the problem for the future is if they’re successful in this kind of prosecutorial zeal, that they will be able to extend this from national security reporting to other kinds of  reporting in Washington and beyond,” he added. The industry has been too hesitant to take on the administration, he continued. “Unless we recognize that, begin to stand up against the administration, I think it’s only going to get worse.”

One question came up over and over again: Is the Obama administration more anti-press than previous ones?  New Yorker author Jane Mayer said national security reporting has never been harder, both because of the administration’s clampdown and because of the increasing omnipresence of electronic surveillance.

But, she said. “I think every administration is anti press…It’s what the Framers of the Constitution understood.”

Email the author: dan.froomkin@theintercept.com