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.