Veteran Investigative Reporters Dismiss Scandalmongering Over Alleged Leaks

Veteran investigative reporters are objecting to claims that a string of stories about internal national security operations are the result of a White House problem with leaks, saying such journalism is just the usual in-depth investigative reporting.

One Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist described the stories as the result of “classic investigative reporting” and said the reporters involved “don't do their work by sucking up to politicians.”

Among the stories being cited are The New York Times' uncovering of a U.S. cyberattack targeting Iran's nuclear program and the Obama administration's secret “kill list” for its campaign of drone strikes.

The cyberattack story, by the Times' David Sanger, has drawn much of the attention, with information for that article coming from research Sanger did for his recent book, Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power.

Despite the fact that Attorney General Eric Holder last Friday directed two federal prosecutors to open investigations into the issue, many conservatives continue to agitate for a special prosecutor to look into the potential leaks.

But longtime investigative journalists tell Media Matters the recent stories under scrutiny were just good investigative reporting and mark no major change in White House security.

“This is normal,” said Walter Pincus, the veteran Washington Post investigative reporter. “The thing that is most normal about it is that look at Sanger's stuff, somebody's writing a book, Bob [Woodward] does it all the time. If you're writing a book and nothing is going to appear the next day and you keep going back and back and take a little bit here and a little bit there, that's how you put these things together.”

Dana Priest, Pincus' colleague at the Post and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for her own investigative journalism, agreed.

“That is what this looks like, classic investigative reporting,” Priest said in an interview. “Talk about the reporters who are on these stories, they are all veteran investigative reporters. They don't do their work by sucking up to politicians in the hopes they will leak them some things. They do the investigative work. I don't know if people outside understand that.”

She later added: “At some point, if the reporter and the paper is mature about what they are doing, they realize that national security reporting is a serious thing and they must try to engage the administration. But it is rare in my experience that the government adds anything of significance, it mainly tries to subtract things. That is their role.”

Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, Ca. -- and former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer -- found little evidence of anything beyond good shoe-leather reporting in these cases.

“I personally don't think it is a 'leak' leak, it is drips and drips that have been going on since before the Obama Administration took office,” he said of the Times' “kill list” story. “It has been drips and drips in the global media.”

He later added about the “kill list” and cyberattack stories: “If this came out of nowhere in the last month, I think it would be a lot more suspicious. I think it has become a political issue now, you are in a presidential campaign.”

Manny Garcia, president of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and executive editor of El Nuevo Herald in Miami, also found nothing different about the stories at issue.

“When I first read this and started going through the stories, my personal view on this thing is this is the normal part, the normal dance that occurs between administrations and government agencies and the press and advocates on whatever side of the issue,” Garcia said. “We have been in situations here, especially dealing with the Justice Department on investigations where we have had U.S. attorneys who reach out and want to open up an investigation into leaks to the Herald, and at least in cases I have been involved in they view it as a leak when it is just good reporting.”

James Grimaldi, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist for The Washington Post who is now at The Wall Street Journal, said the Times' cyberattack story does not appear to be leak-driven.

“That to me does not look like a spoon-fed authorized leak from the highest levels of government,” he said of Sanger's article. “That looks to me like it's shoe-leather reporting that is inch-by-inch spade work trying to find out from the ground up what happened. By the time he goes to the top people, he's already got the story. If that's the case, then it obviously wasn't leaked by U.S. officials first.”

Grimaldi also found hypocrisy in the recent leak investigation efforts, saying, “There's no one conducting leak investigations into [Washington Post reporter] Joe Stephens and others' work on Solyndra and I think that involves a variety of records that were obtained through various means. That was also work that was meant to evaluate the Obama record."

On the call for a leak investigation, Grimaldi described it as “almost politics as usual in Washington.”

For David Cay Johnston, a Reuters columnist and IRE board member, no unusual leaks affected the recent stories, citing the Sanger story specifically.

“Everything in this suggests this is solid legwork by David Sanger, some people who spoke to him are leaking in the sense that they are not authorized to say things or not say them officially,” he said.

Adds Tom Fiedler, dean of the Boston University College of Communication and former Miami Herald executive editor: " ... the fundamental question here isn't the way in which credible information comes to an investigative reporter, but rather whether the information, when made public, contributes to that 'informed citizenry' on which our democracy depends. In this case I believe the NYT acted responsibly - and it's simply irrelevant whether the reporter got the information from a 'leaker' or from 'solid reporting.'"

Several of the veteran reporters also weighed in on claims by some that the current dispute is similar to the 2003 Valerie Plame affair, in which the George W. Bush Administration leaked the identity of Plame, a CIA operative, to reporters.

Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff at the time, was convicted in 2007 on four counts, including obstruction of justice and perjury, stemming from the case. President Bush later commuted his sentence.

But several of the veteran reporters who spoke with Media Matters say the current claims of leaks are very different from the Plame affair, which they contend was a specific effort to leak classified information to journalists.

“I don't think this is similar to the Valerie Plame thing because that was disclosed as a targeted leak to discredit a single agent, which not that many people had information about,” said Rosenthal.

Pincus, who testified in the Plame case that he had been leaked Plame's identity from then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, agreed there is no comparison:

“The Valerie Plame incident was a PR operation,” Pincus said in a phone interview. “They came to us; it was something offered to me. I was writing a story about something else. It was clearly part of a White House decision to put the information out because it was put out by three or four different people, all with the same story.”

Grimaldi mirrored that view, stating, “This just has a different feel to it than the Plame stuff, to me. The allegation there was that it was a leak for political purposes to destroy an individual. This appears to be a reporter who went out to solve the mystery that we all wanted to know about ... the Valerie Plame leak was not really investigative reporting, this was.”