CIA Head Pompeo Would Like to Decide What Counts as a Real Media Outlet

A war on WikiLeaks will ultimately threaten a free press.


Mike Pompeo
Riccardo Savi/TNS/Newscom

Mike Pompeo, the former Republican congressman who is now President Donald Trump's director of the CIA, wants to protect America from fascism and authoritarian regimes by cracking down on media outlets that publish information he doesn't want them to.

Wait … what?

Pompeo delivered a prepared speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies yesterday that was clearly intended to be a boisterous defense of what all our federal snoops do to keep America safe. But the intelligence community has had some issues with leaks the past few years, to put it mildly, and Pompeo's speech has him playing company man, insisting through sheer assertion that disclosures about what the CIA and intelligence community at large are doing is a threat to America's ability to keep people safe and fight terrorism.

Pompeo's comments took a particularly dark turn when he addressed WikiLeaks. He does not like the media outlet, nor does he like Julian Assange. This is not terribly surprising and not unusual. Assange has a lot of critics even outside the beltway. He's a polarizing figure.

But Pompeo makes it very, very clear that he does not believe that WikiLeaks should be treated like a media outlet and actually threats some sort of government-sponsored retribution for publishing classified or private data. Here are two separate and rather chilling quotes from parts of his speech:

No, Julian Assange and his kind are not the slightest bit interested in improving civil liberties or enhancing personal freedom. They have pretended that America's First Amendment freedoms shield them from justice. They may have believed that, but they are wrong. …

[W]e can no longer allow Assange and his colleagues the latitude to use free speech values against us. To give them the space to crush us with misappropriated secrets is a perversion of what our great Constitution stands for. It ends now.

We must destroy free speech in order to protect it! We must use government power to stop people from disclosing information in order to protect the media's right and responsibility to disclose information. It makes total sense!

Because of the allegations of ties between WikiLeaks and Russia and the possibility that Russian government representatives were the source of documents (like Democratic National Committee communications) that had been released during the presidential election, the site is the focus of even more criticism than it had been before.

But one does not have to be a supporter of WikiLeaks to see the deep, serious problems with what Pompeo argues here—that one's right to free speech and free press is dependent on one's agenda and whether it aligns with the federal government's.

Pompeo is hardly alone in wanting the government to decide what is and isn't a real media outlet and to want to exclude WikiLeaks entirely for the purpose of trying to punish them. Lawmakers have been wanting for ages to decide what counts as a "real journalist" in such a way that allows them to exert control over what really counts as news.

One doesn't have to wander very far to ponder the implications. You don't even have to turn away from Pompeo. As Reuters notes, Pompeo's criticism of WikiLeaks is a new thing. He was certainly willing to treat them like a media outlet with content worth sharing when it was revealing information about the Democrats' communications last year:

In July, Pompeo, than a Republican member of the House of Representatives, mentioned it in a Twitter post referring to claims that the DNC had slanted the candidate-selection process to favor Clinton. "Need further proof that the fix was in from Pres. Obama on down? BUSTED: 19,252 Emails from DNC Leaked by Wikileaks."

So it's absurdly obvious that Pompeo's evaluation of WikiLeaks is in part dependent on whose ox is getting gored.

In the Q&A section, Pompeo was even more specific in saying that the protections of the free press are in part bounded by what the government thinks is in its interest:

Julian Assange has no First Amendment privileges. He is not a U.S. citizen. What I was speaking to is an understanding that these are not reporters doing good work to try to keep the American Government on us. These are actively recruiting agents to steal American secrets with the sole intent of destroying the American way of life.

That is fundamentally different than a First Amendment activity as I understand them. This is what I was getting to. We have had administrations before that have been too squeamish about going after these people, after some concept of this right to publish. Nobody has the right to actively engage in the theft of secrets from America without the intent to do harm to it.

Over at The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald, obviously concerned about what it might mean for somebody responsible for helping Edward Snowden reveal domestic surveillance by the National Security Administration, is bothered that the rest of the media is not terribly worried about this. Pompeo's threats are terrible:

When I worked at the Guardian, my editors were all non-Americans. Would it therefore have been constitutionally permissible for the U.S. Government to shut down that paper and imprison its editors on the ground that they enjoy no constitutional protections? Obviously not. Moreover, what rational person would possibly be comfortable with having this determination – who is and is not a "real journalist" – made by the CIA?

Even many of those who believe Snowden broke the law with his disclosures and think he should face some sort of criminal punishment are not on board with punishing the media outlets themselves for reporting information. Pompeo doesn't seem to be as willing to make the distinction. He throws out the word "treason" in reference to those who leak information. He has used the word before to describe Snowden directly.

Pompeo further insists that Snowden isn't a whistleblower because he didn't follow the proper procedures, which has been a common refrain from apologists for the surveillance state across party lines. Why should anybody accept the government's designation of who a "whistleblower" is any more than they would allow the government to decide what a real media outlet is or who a journalist is?

The reality is that because of Snowden's disclosures, Congress changed the laws in order to place restraints on the government's ability to collect and keep mass amounts of metadata on American citizens. If we were instead to evaluate Snowden on the basis of the outcome of his leaks, he sure as heck counts as a whistleblower. Congress changed laws because of what he showed us and because of the public's outrage over it.

Pompeo, though, supports bulk data collection and surveillance, even domestically. So really, when all is said and done, he is in a very disturbing fashion deciding that concepts like free speech and privacy are subservient to whatever the government declares is in its own interest.

And yet he's telling us to be worried about WikiLeaks.

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  1. Self-interest knows no end. People like Pompeo are absolutely among the most dangerous men in society, thanks to the power a State provides them.

  2. Christ, what a spooky asshole.

    1. by grabthar’s hammer, what an asshole

    2. You’re right. We should totally start calling people who work for the CIA “spooks”!

  3. …bothered that the rest of the media is not terribly worried about this.

    Even in the Trump era, journalists can’t bring themselves to remove their lips from the intelligence community’s… butt. People who hobnob with our decision makers often end up conflating America with its government. Be reverent of the nation’s ideals not these people.

    1. Why would they be worried about an opportunity to shut down alternative media and form a cartel of themselves as the de facto Ministry of Truth? Sounds like a legacy media wet dream.

  4. insisting through sheer assertion, or asserting through sheer insistence, discuss.

  5. I need to depart from the pack on this one. Here’s part of Pompeo’s speech not mentioned above:

    “WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” Mr. Pompeo said. To support his assessment, he cited how the group had encouraged followers to join the C.I.A. and steal secrets, and how “it overwhelmingly focuses on the United States while seeking support from antidemocratic countries.”

    State or Non-State actor, that sounds a lot like espionage to me.

    Link to NYTimes Article.

    1. NYT article? Fake news. Ignore everything you hear unless you get it straight from Twitter.

    2. “he cited how the group had encouraged followers to join the C.I.A. and steal secrets,”

      How is this different in principle from NY Times reporters meeting with government officials off the record and pressuring them to leak government secrets?

      1. It isn’t. If you’re conspiring to steal/pressuring to leak classified intel, you’re engaging in espionage.

        If your encouraging followers to join the CIA, it isn’t to find out about an underground fantasy football league.

    3. Isn’t that technique he describes a pretty standard journalistic practice called the “expos?”?

      1. Yes it is. It’s also a standard practice in the intelligence community called “spying”.

        I’m not arguing the technique. I’m arguing that the type of information being sought (and the intent) makes it espionage.

        1. Or is espionage only when governments do it to each other? Nah, probably not.

          But I would question whether the intent is really the same as in more conventional espionage. When countries/governments spy on each other, the intent is not generally to make information public for all to see, but to keep secret both the intelligence itself and the fact that it was gathered at all, if possible.

    4. Pompeo was a big fan of Wikileaks as long as they were going after Hillary. Maybe he should be prosecuted as an accessory to espionage.

      1. They were ALL big fans of Wikileaks and Julian Assange when they were going after Hillary. Sean Hannity back in 2010 or so was calling Assange a traitor who should be shot. But in 2016, Assange was a hero who was saving the Republic from the scourge of Hillary.

        Whatever Trump Derangement Syndrome might look like on the left, Hillary Derangement Syndrome must be way worse on the right.

  6. Someone needs to tell the ignorant ass that in an open and free society there is no place for secrets. A state secret should be only use for national security. It is not in national interest that the CIA operates within the US borders in direct violation of their charter. Or that they are the biggest supplier of illegal drugs in the this country; the proceeds of which they use to topple legitimate governments. Nor should it be a secret that they supply and train terroist all around the world. Or that the highjackers on 9/11 were trained on a known CIA airfield in South Florida. The only reason that the CIA would want these things kept secret is because they are morally wrong and probably illegal.

    1. Does Dan.O. have the day off?

      1. Today’s the day he hangs on his cross. He’ll be back Sunday morning.

  7. Oh but don’t worry, good denizens of Reason. We can successfully partner with Republicans in order to bring forth the Libertopia that we all desire. Not those evil pesky Progs. Oh no. They only want bad things. But Republicans are closer to a libertarian’s way of thinking. Amirite or amirite?

    1. I missed when someone at Reason said any such thing.

      1. That’s the “chem” part of chemjeff conflating all republicans with constitutional originalists.

      2. A bunch of people who stormed off in a huff do.

        1. I can tell… look at all the shit they left behind.

  8. If the trump administration keeps acting like democrats, no ones gonna know what to think.

    1. You know who else acted like democrats?

  9. “actually threats some sort of government-sponsored retribution for publishing classified or private data”

    Ignoring for now private data; it is illegal to posses classified data. It is impossible to publish classified data without possessing it. So yes, there would be some kind of government sponsored retribution. It is called arrest and trial.
    I do not see anything in the first amendment that says the laws do not apply to the press. It just says their freedom cannot be abridged. For details of what constitutes abridgment, see the second amendment. Or walk into an airport.

    1. “abridged”

      I don’t think that it the word you really want there.

  10. If an outlet that shares confidential info with Russia is illegitimate, does that mean a president who did so is illegitimate?

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