Former CIA Director and General General David Petraeus won't see jail time for giving over highly classified journals to his mistress and biographer. But Stephen Kim, a State Department advisor, got 13 months for pleading guilty to speaking about one classified document to a reporter. Bob speaks with Peter Maass from The Intercept, who says they threw the book at the wrong leaker.
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Bob Garfield: Zealously protecting the homeland, of course, is not limited to spying on citizens. It also includes ferreting out sinister citizen spies. Zealously protecting the homeland, of course, is not limited to spying on citizens. It’s also ferreting out citizen spies. Case in point: Stephen Kim, former senior adviser at the State Department and current prison inmate.
One morning in June of 2009, Kim returned a call from FOX NEWS reporter James Rosen, and that was opportunity knocking. Kim, a nukes expert and a hawk on North Korea policy, wanted the U.S. to punish North Korea’s nuclear provocations with more than toothless diplomatic protests. A few phone calls and one Foggy Bottom stroll later, Rosen posted an online story headlined “North Korea Intends to Match U.N. Resolution With New Nuclear Test.” This was fairly conventional wisdom, but it was also the conclusion of a brand new classified intelligence report available to Kim. Because the reporter and the source did a very poor job of covering their tracks, and because the Obama Administration wanted to make an example of a leaker, Kim was charged under the Espionage Act. He is now serving 13 months in prison, having lost his job, his savings, his marriage and his freedom. Peter Maas is a journalist at The Intercept, which in February published a long article titled “Destroyed by the Espionage Act” about Kim. Peter, welcome back to OTM.
Maass: Good to be with you.
Bob Garfield: When James Rosen's story broke on Fox News, clearly he had info from a classified report, what was the reaction in the White House and the CIA and elsewhere in the intelligence apparatus?
Maass: The reaction in the White House was fury. There were people, particularly on the National Security Council, who read that story and were familiar with the classified report that it referenced. They were upset basically about two things, first off that a classified report had been leaked, and secondly that it had been leaked within hours of it being distributed at the top levels of the United States government. And this was, for them, one leak of many that had been happening, and it happened to fall at a time when they decided to start cracking down in a big way.
Bob Garfield: One of the reasons they decided to start cracking down in a big way is that someone dug into previous cases where investigations had been started into the breach of classified information and zero indictments. Not a single person made an example of, and Stephen Kim was very much in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Maass: Right. For many administrations, perhaps for all administrations, there have been complaints about leaks and they're terrible and they have to be stopped, but pretty much they all tolerate them. This is where the Obama administration however decided to take a different tack. And the different tack that it took was when it looked at the record and saw that there were all of these referrals for investigations, but not indictments, that that was going to stop. That that was as Dennis Blair told the New York Times subsequently, it was necessary to hang an admiral, to make an example. And Stephen Kim happened to talk to James Rosen, just as this review was getting underway.
Bob Garfield: Well, they wanted to hang an admiral but it was more like an ensign. And furthermore, he was an ensign who was doing what ensigns in his position and various kinds of bureaucrats, even at the highest levels, have been doing in Washington for a century. Which is playing out policy disputes in the press. Absolutely common practice, no?
Maass: It's beyond common practice, I mean it's almost uncommon for this not to occur. And it's something that also is not just a matter of practice, but a matter of health, in the sense of political health, so that we know, hey, there are differences within the Administration over policy x or y, and the only way we find out about these kinds of things, is for officials to go outside whichever department they work for that isn't responding to their complaints, and talk to journalists and say hey, there's a problem here, look at this.
Bob Garfield: It is clearly a very large grey political economy that is participated in by everybody, including administrations themselves.
Maass: There is classified information that government officials discuss with journalists on a virtual daily basis, and they discuss it because this classified information makes the administration look good. A successful raid in Somalia. A successful negotiation with Iran. And therefore, the information is released to reporters without authorization by the President necessarily, but nobody bats an eyelid. And the very odd and frustrating thing about this, is that Stephen Kim was not even accused of handing over a document, a piece of paper or a thumb drive. This was a discussion about which, by the way, the government had no proof of what was actually said. There were no recordings, there were no confessions, there were no emails between them about what they had discussed. There was however an incriminating amount of metadata that put these two men in the same place at the same time, talking about something. And the government believed it was this classified report that Rosen then later wrote about.
Bob Garfield: You know, Kim lied to the FBI. He apparently divulged some hot off the presses intelligence, there was a crime committed. In taking up this case, in devoting the time and resources that you clearly did, I mean I don't know how many months you invested in this story--
Bob Garfield: --And in citing the horrific effect on Stephen Kim's life-- he is impoverished by the legal defense, he is imprisoned, he has lost his family, he has been despondent to the point of suicidal thoughts-- that's a powerful narrative you spin, but have you chosen the wrong case to make an example of? If the government overreached, doesn't the Edward Snowden case show, there was reason for them to want to make an example of somebody? And your poster child is someone who apparently did the deed.
Maass: Well, an unjust prosecution is an unjust prosecution. The fact that there are lots of murders going on out there, perhaps even serial murders, does not mean that somebody who is a pickpocket should be arrested and charged for homicide. And that's more or less, in my view, the context of the prosecution and destruction of Stephen Kim. Who was a very loyal, very concerned civil servant, who had a conversation with a reporter that he probably should not have had.
Bob Garfield: And by the way, when they left the building to meet one another, on this blind date, the date was set up, the yenta, was a senior member of public affairs at the State Department. So, to some degree, it was actually sanctioned by his superiors, if not the actual act at least the relationship with James Rosen.
Maass: You know there's all kinds of muddying context that really brings some light to this case. There's kind of a hypocrisy where one arm of the government encourages one form of behavior, and another part of the government prosecutes that kind of behavior. It's a very confusing kind of situation.
Bob Garfield: If it's true, and it is, that this is the way policy and journalism have been symbiotic for a century, is that going to change?
Maass: Without sounding too New York Times-like, I would say the answer is yes and no. Are people scared off? Yeah, for sure. I've had that happen with sources of mine and other journalist friends of mine have had that happen with sources of theirs. However, when you look at the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Intercept and the list goes on, you see every day, amazing stories, based on classified information. I can't speak for other journalists, but I do think a bit of what is happening is that there are a lot of journalists who are redoubling their efforts. It's harder to get this information, but we're trying harder to get it. And it ain't over.
Bob Garfield: Alright, Peter, thank you very much.
Maass: Thank you.
Bob Garfield: Peter Maass is a senior writer at The Intercept.