Obama has, in many ways, attempted to define his presidency in terms of doing things differently from his predecessor. One change that is being put into place is that the Obama administration seems intent on cracking down on leaks of classified material. This is supposed to involve a more streamlined process for handling leaks as well as commitment to dealing with leaks rapidly. One rather interesting aspect of the new approach is that the Obama administration seems to be more willing to go after journalists. Naturally, this approach raises numerous concerns.
On one hand, an excellent case can be made for cracking down on leaks. The defense of the United States from foreign and domestic enemies often requires strict secrecy. Leaked information of this sort could do serious harm to the United States. As such, cracking down on leaks seems to be an excellent idea and perfectly legitimate.
On the other hand, there is the concern that the crackdown on leaks will also serve to be a crackdown on those who would expose corruption, incompetence, mismanagement, and other serious problems. For example, a formed NSA official was recently indicted for allegedly revealing a mismanaged computer program.
This nicely reveals the two key concerns here. First, there is the need to ensure that legitimate classified information is properly protected. One way to help reach this goal is to ensure that leaks are swiftly investigated and properly punished.
Second, there is the need to ensure that misdeeds are not allowed to flourish in the shadows created by secrecy. As such, there also needs to be a proper mechanism in place for cases involving legitimate whistle blowing. While it is tempting to say that such cases should always be handled within the cloak of government secrecy, there is the obvious concern that such secrecy will often allow such problems to remain uncorrected. As such, whistle blowers might have to turn to the press to reveal certain problems.
While such whistle blowing might be seen as being against the interest of the United States, this need not be the case. After all, wasting money on useless programs, engaging in deeply flawed operations, or participating in grossly illegal activities do not help the United States become safer. In fact, the opposite is true. As such, those who blow the whistle in cases in which the official channels cannot or will not address the problems should not be treated as criminals. Rather, the investigation should focus on the problem as well as the defects in the official channels that allowed the problem to remain hidden.
As far as the press goes, the general principle should be that if the leaked information exposes misdeeds, corruption or similar problems, then the people involved should be regarded as doing service to the country. If, however, information that should be legitimately kept secret is leaked, then those involved should be regarded as acting in a harmful manner. Of course, officials will tend to believe that exposing their problems or misdeeds is harmful. It would be, of course, to them. But, since they are harming America in this manner, they have no right to expect to be able to hide within the shadows.