The New McCarthyism?

History will judge Obama’s war against terror — and government leakers — harshly

America faces the most insidious threats in our history. Not only are enemies amassing outside our borders, bent on destroying our society and burning us to ashes; they have already penetrated inside, where agents are working to undermine our security.To protect our liberty, it is essential that we root out these threats by any means necessary; and if the Constitution gets in the way, let’s ignore it — just for a bit — until we can get the problem squared away. Then things can get back to normal.

Versions of this argument have been repeated over and over in our history, from the unlawful internment of German and Japanese Americans during the First and Second World Wars, to the Red Scare, to the illegal bombing of Cambodia. Each time, the panic has peaked and receded, and we look back in shame. The villains who drove us against our better nature are singled out and punished in the history books. And then, in the heat of the moment, lessons are forgotten and the same mistakes are made again.

It has played out enough times to feel inevitable. But there is nothing inevitable about power walking backwards. We’ve been lucky. Will we be lucky again?

We’re now in the middle of a new panic. Unlike past panics, America faces no enemy powerful enough to threaten our political or social institutions from outside. The most dangerous enemy, as the nation’s founders understood, is inside. But it is not whistleblowers or spies or terrorists or traitors. It is well-intentioned Americans who fear that the open society they have sworn to defend is too weak to protect itself, and who therefore do everything in their power to crush it in order to save it.

Guantanamo, targeted killings, the NSA’s spying programs, extraordinary rendition, the torture memo — the list goes on.While Obama has been walking back the war on terror, there’s no talk of walking back tactics like drone strikes and the growing domestic surveillance apparatus. These have become part of the new normal. And Obama has introduced Washington to yet another dangerous weapon that may be equally hard to undo: the indiscriminate demonization of government leakers.

McClatchy’s Danny Doughterty discovered new details of these policies last week that echo the tactics of paranoia and denunciations deployed by the late Sen. Joe McCarthy:

Government documents reviewed by McClatchy…show how millions of federal employees and contractors must watch for “high-risk persons or behaviors” among co-workers and could face penalties, including criminal charges, for failing to report them. Leaks to the media are equated with espionage.

The witch hunt goes beyond controversial rogue actors like Edward Snowden, who became the eighth person charged under the Espionage Act under Obama — more than all previous presidential administrations combined. It extends to ordinary staffers, current and former, who may now risk jail if they help journalists report legitimate news stories. Such cases are now pending against former State Department contractor Stephen Kim, who shared classified information with Fox News reporter James Rosen about North Korea; and former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who spoke with New York Times reporter James Risen about Iran’s nuclear program in the 1990s.

Under Obama’s leak policies, anyone who reveals secret activities — illegal or not — is considered to be aiding the enemy. No doubt the enemy here is intended to mean terrorists, outgunned and on the run in the desert half a world away. But there is another enemy, often only dimly perceived, that has always come for those who cloak themselves in unaccountable power: History.

No wonder leakers look so scary to some people these days.