from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

National Security Leaks and the White House

July 26, 2012

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Every administration suffers from leaks of classified information. Given the size of the government and the large number of people who have access to information that is not only highly classified but truly sensitive, some leaks are impossible to prevent. For example, every administration faces leaks from officials who have lost interagency fights and are using the press to attack policy decisions.

But the leaks coming in recent months out of the Obama administration are different, because they are apparently coming from the White House, are intentional, and are information whose disclosure truly threatens national security interests.

The practice of leaking sensitive information exploded after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, when the White House leaked all sorts of operational information that made the President look good. As Sen. John McCain put it, "the fact is that the portrayal of the president in these stories is nothing short of heroic.” Otherwise put, they leaked information of intelligence value when the sole purpose of the leak was to improve the president’s image in an election year, at whatever intelligence cost.

There have been stories in the New York Times, Newsweek and the Associated Press that reveal a previously undisclosed U.S. role in the "Stuxnet" cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear program, disclose details on the president’s decision-making regarding the selection of the drone targets in Pakistan and Yemen, and discuss how a spy infiltrated al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate.

Sen. Diane Feinstein, a Democrat, said:

I think what we’re seeing [is] an avalanche of leaks. And it’s very, very disturbing. You know, it -- it’s dismayed our allies. It puts American lives in jeopardy. It puts our nation’s security in jeopardy…. So people are placed in danger and American lives are lost because of it. And people just talk too much. And this didn’t used to be the case, but suddenly, it’s -- it’s like it’s a spreadable disease. It’s just happening…. I can tell you where lives have been endangered…. I’ve been on the Intelligence Committee for 11 years and I have never seen it worse, I can tell you that.

Feinstein also said that "I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from its ranks. I don’t know specifically where, but I think they have to begin to understand that and do something about it." Of course she then walked back these remarks; it is an election year.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers (who is a former FBI agent) yesterday said that confidence in the ability and willingness of the White House to keep secrets has been “shattered.” “We have a crisis of confidence in keeping information secret around the world,” Rogers stated. “I can tell you as a guy that who’s in charge with this for the House of Representatives on the intelligence committee, how people are saying, hey, we’re just not sure we can cooperate with the United States anymore. A serious problem.”

But why does anyone think the problem comes from the White House, as obviously many—including Feinstein—do? Rogers explained:

I think there’s a lot of frustration here on the hill, Republicans and Democrats, about these leaks, the nature of the leaks, the sheer volume of the leaks, the very sensitive classified information that gets leaked. There’s a difference between people screwing up and providing something maybe they shouldn’t, and there is this intentional voluminous amount of information that is really, really sensitive….It’s just very suspicious. Think about it, you have to have somebody who has a very senior clearance level. You have to have somebody that is -- has access to covert action and somebody who has access to the White House situation room just in the information that was leaked in one particular episode. Boy, you don’t get too far away from the White House when that happens.

The administration’s reaction has been to play for time and have an inside investigation: two U.S. attorneys who report to Eric Holder, no special prosecutor, no independent counsel. And no report until after the election. Rogers says that will do nothing to restore confidence; what is needed is full and immediate access for Congressional investigators, and those two U.S. attorneys, of all relevant materials:

They need to say, listen, I’m in this thing fully. You get to talk to anybody that you want. I will give you phone records, I will give you calendars, I will give you the opportunity for these individuals that you have some suspicions about to tell reporters that they can fully disclose the context of those conversations.

But that, of course, has not happened.

There are many issues here, but one of them is whether Democrats in Congress, and Democrats who served as officials in previous administrations, will take this intelligence crisis seriously. That means demanding a special counsel to investigate (rather than leaving it to an Obama partisan and subordinate like Eric Holder), and demanding punishment of any White House officials who leaked sensitive, classified intelligence. As someone who served in the Bush White House and saw the press and many Democrats in Congress descend like vultures on the leak of one name, of a CIA employee then serving in Langley, this seems to me a fair test to pose. According to Diane Feinstein, there is an "avalanche" of  leaks that have "put American lives in jeopardy" and "put our nation’s security in jeopardy." When she added that "I’ve been on the Intelligence Committee for 11 years and I have never seen it worse," it is worth noting that obviously those 11 years include the entire George W. Bush administration. The question now is whether she, and other Democrats, will go beyond interviews and speeches and demand action to protect the nation’s secrets and punish those who have leaked them--even, indeed especially,  those at the White House who have leaked them.


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