Obama himself both outlined the balance and made clear where he stands on it in remarks last week during a press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. While Obama said that he couldn't comment directly on the AP leak investigation, he did offer this broader commentary:
"Leaks related to national security can put people at risk. They can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers, who are in various, dangerous situations that are easily compromised, at risk....so I make no apologies, and I don't think the American people would expect me as Commander-in-Chief not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed."
After noting that "we also live in a democracy where a free press, free expression and the open flow of information helps hold me accountable," Obama added this: "I also think it’s important to recognize that when we express concern about leaks at a time when I’ve still got 60,000-plus troops in Afghanistan, and I’ve still got a whole bunch of intelligence officers around the world who are in risky situations -- in outposts that, in some cases, are as dangerous as the outpost in Benghazi -- that part of my job is to make sure that we’re protecting what they do, while still accommodating for the need for information -- or the need for the public to be informed and be able to hold my office accountable."
In case there was any question about which side of the equation Obama's administration thought was more important, the affidavit seeking access to Rosen's email records makes it crystal clear.
FBI agent Reginald Reyes wrote that Rosen's activities to get a scoop on North Korea's potential willingness to use nuclear weapons peg him as "at the very least, either as an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator." What Rosen did, at least judging from the affidavit, appears to be relatively standard-issue reporting -- particularly when dealing with sensitive information.
To be clear: No one is alleging that the federal government broke any laws in either the AP or Rosen cases. But, it's also quite clear that the Obama Administration is aggressively attacking leakers and the journalistic leekees (is that a word?) in a way that is entirely different than past administrations.
While Obama's senior team insists these decisions were made independently of him, there's clearly a tone being set from the top down -- and it's a tone that Obama has long held, dating back to his days as a candidate. Obama and his top campaign aides prided themselves during the 2008 and 2012 races for their tight-knittedness and their lack of leaks. The "no drama Obama" mantra became a point of pride. And, that lack of drama -- particularly when it comes to issues like the IRS and AP -- runs counter (either directly or indirectly) to Obama's past pledges to be the "most transparent administration in history."
Of course, running a tight campaign ship and running a tight ship of state are two different things. And, leaks about how much a candidate has raised in a particular period are not on the same level as leaks that could put American lives in danger.
But, for all of those who dismiss the AP and Rosen stories as simply hobbyhorses of a press corps obsessed with navel-gazing, it's worth remembering that without anonymous tipsters the American public might never have known about Richard Nixon and Watergate. Or then Rep. Duke Cunningham's lavish flaunting of the law. Or myriad other abuses by federal and state government officials. (Worth noting: Obama has expressed support for a media shield law that would offer further protections for journalists.)
The simple fact is that whistleblowers, anonymous sources and other leakers are a critical part of holding governments accountable -- no matter which party is in charge. There's no question that the aggressiveness of the Obama Administration will chill the willingness of those sorts of people to speak out. And that, in the long run, is a bad thing for democracy. Period.