“What I want to do is I want to fucking kill all the leakers,” Anthony Scaramucci, the Trump administration’s short-lived communications director, confided to the New Yorker. Now Scaramucci swims among the fishes. But his comment succinctly captures the Trump administration’s attitude towards leakers.
This attitude didn’t begin with the Mooch, however. It didn’t even begin with this administration.
On Saturday, July 29, I attended a day-long symposium on free speech hosted by the Chicago Humanities Festival. The event consisted of three panels, a brief speech from the University of Chicago president, and extensive Q&A, all of which grappled with the day’s theme of “Speech and Privilege.”
One panel, moderated by University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, (a critic of Edward Snowden), included ACLU National Legal Director David Cole, and Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter.
The panel was a free-wheeling discussion on the fate of free speech in America, touching on Citizens United, whether robust speech rights (including the right to what some may call “hate speech”) hurts American democracy, and the ways in which women are often denied the same speech privileges as men.
Once the panel was opened up for the Q&A, yours truly was lucky enough to get in the first question. It took all my will power to not inquire about Obama’s blundering Libya policy, of which Slaughter was a full-throated supporter. Instead, I asked her about the Obama administration’s record on free speech. I’ve transcribed the exchange below and here’s a recording:
Eli Massey: Hi, thanks very much for the panel. My question is for Anne-Marie Slaughter. I have to say, your comments ring a little bit hollow. How can you claim to be—
Geoffrey Stone: That’s hate speech. I don’t know about this.
EM: Yeah. How can you claim to be a proponent of free speech and a free press when you served in an administration, the Obama administration, that prosecuted more whistleblowers than all past presidents combined, times three? To borrow a headline from New York Times journalist James Risen, who was targeted by the Obama administration, “If Donald Trump Targets Journalists, Thank Obama.” Thank you.
Anne-Marie Slaughter: Well, let’s see. I served in the Obama administration and I disagreed with them vehemently on quite a number of things including their entire Syria policy. So the fact that I served in an administration that did some things that I disagree with I don’t think disqualifies me. I do actually—I don’t agree with the Obama administration’s persecu—prosecution, some people would say persecution of leakers. Allison Stanger is in the audience and her next book is on exactly the protection of whistleblowers. I do think that certainly in a number of cases that to me was chilling on our democracy and I’d say you see the same thing with Donald Trump wanting to go after leakers. But part of, you know, part of free speech and vigorous debate is not to presume that somebody automatically stands with everything that one party or other does on both sides. So that just because I was serving in the Obama administration, everything they did was great and everything this administration does is wrong. No, we are all individuals and we all take our points of view, and we reason with each other. And we put our principles before our party, and our country with our principles.
Notice how keen Slaughter is on emphasizing that people serving in an administration don’t agree on everything. Apparently she can therefore have served in an administration that seriously undermined press freedom while simultaneously trumpeting her great support for press freedom. That’s a reasonable point, but it’d be a bit like serving in the Bush administration and claiming to be a great opponent of torture.
I was very glad that Slaughter was willing to condemn the Obama administration’s prosecutions of whistleblowers so unequivocally, and I was even heartened that she furthermore seemed to concede that Donald Trump is building upon Obama’s legacy.
The real question, however, was why hadn’t she stood up and loudly decried the “chilling on our democracy” as it was happening under Obama?
I can, with great bravery, denounce the atrocities perpetrated by Genghis Khan. But since they’re long over, it’s a totally meaningless gesture. Slaughter’s comments are, to be fair, not a totally meaningless gesture, though they have less value than if she had made them while Obama was still in office.
Donald Trump’s assault on free speech and the press are only just beginning. But given that Slaughter was not, as far as I can tell, an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s prosecution of whistleblowers at the time, she comes off as partisan rather than as someone truly committed to the principle of free expression.
There is one exception of which I’m aware. To her credit, Slaughter previously tweeted her support for granting Edward Snowden clemency, a position which many in the administration, including the president, disagreed.
It’s possible there are other exceptions, but, given her huge following, it’s a shame that Slaughter didn’t choose to more vociferously defend the right that Supreme Court Justice William Brennan said “all other liberties and rights flow from.”
It’s perfectly true that Donald Trump is unhinged and hardly needed political precedent to go after press freedom in the way that he has. He’s proposed that the FBI should consider imprisoning journalists, hurled an impressive array of epithets at the media, suggested our libel laws should be “open[ed] up” to make it easier to sue, and arguably incited violence against the press.
Other members of the administration have been equally aggressive. CIA Director Mike Pompeo has said Edward Snowden deserves to be executed. A journalist was arrested for asking Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price a question. Under the auspices of Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department investigations of leaks have tripled from the number that were open when Obama left office. And Sessions has made clear his intention to prosecute Julian Assange, a move that, no matter how you feel about Wikileaks and Assange, will render all journalistic outlets vulnerable to government prosecution for publishing classified materials.
These are just some of the alarming developments under this administration. But the Trump administration’s war on whistleblowers is hardly coming out of left field.
They’re building on history.
Rightly or wrongly, we expect Democrats to condemn Republicans, and we expect Republicans to do the inverse. It’s a nice idea that politicians would do as Slaughter suggests and put their principles before their party and their country with their principles, but it so rarely happens.