“Holier Than The Pope”: How Leaks Happen

President Obama just finished his press conference (I watched the CNN feed) and while most of the media reaction has been to his comment that “the private sector is doing fine”, I want to focus here on his push back against the charge leveled by some Republican Party leaders, including senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, that members of his White House staff are deliberately leaking classified national security information to bolster Obama’s reelection chances.  Those charges were a response to recent news stories casting a generally favorable light on Obama’s anti-terrorism efforts, including this NY Times piece by David Sanger on Obama’s use of cyber warfare against Iran and this one documenting his role in targeting terrorists for drone strikes.  Republicans found Sanger’s story particularly troubling because it was based on research for his forthcoming book Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power . In his note on sources for the book, Sanger writes:  “Following the practice of the Times in reporting on national security, I discussed with senior government officials the potential risks of publication of sensitive information that touches on ongoing intelligence operations. At the government’s request, and in consultation with editors, I withheld a limited number of details that senior government officials said could jeopardize current or planned operations.”

For Republicans, this suggests the White House cooperated with Sanger in order to burnish Obama’s national security credentials heading into the fall election. Not surprisingly, when asked about this in today’s press conference, Obama said he found the idea  that he would authorize leaking classified security information for political gain “offensive.”  Moreover, as Press Secretary Jay Carney noted in yesterday’s press gaggle, Scott Shane – one of the authors of the NY Times drone kill list story, has stated  “The notion that the White House prompted the story or controlled our reporting and writing is absurd.”

I don’t doubt that Obama does not condone national security leaks.  Nor do I believe the New York Times published two generally favorable pieces at the White House’s bidding. But that does not mean the Times reporters didn’t rely on leaked information to write their story.  The reality is that it is all too common for a president’s political aides to wade into politically controversial waters, including leaking potentially classified information, if they believe by doing so they will help the president achieve a policy objective, or gain politically – and they often do so without telling the President in order to give him “plausible deniability”.   Recall, for example, the decision by Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser John Poindexter, working with the redoubtable Oliver North, to use “residuals” from the sales of arms to Iran to fund the Nicaraguan contras in the period 1985-86.  That decision was made, based on all available evidence, without Ronald Reagan’s knowledge, but when it was disclosed, Reagan bore the full brunt of the political repercussions.  Poindexter famously proclaimed that the “buck stops here” in trying to take full responsibility for the diversion, but of course this was politically naive; whenever a White House aide or senior official acts, the repercussions always fall back on the President – whether he authorized the act or not.

In 2003, of course, State Department Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage, for reasons that are still disputed, revealed to columnist Bob Novak that Valerie Plame was a CIA officer.  Novak was trying to find out why Plame’s husband Joe Wilson, a former Clinton administration official, had been sent to Niger to investigate whether Saddam Hussein had sought to buy uranium in the form of “yellowcake” as a precursor to making a nuclear weapon. Bush had made that charge in his 2003 State of the Union address, but Wilson subsequently wrote an op-ed piece saying that is not what he learned on his trip there, and that Bush had misrepresented the intelligence findings.   Armitage’s motives in revealing Plame’s work status remains a matter of debate; while Armitage contends that he revealed the information to Novak inadvertently, Novak stated that he thought the leak was deliberate.

The key point, however, is that although President Bush denies instructing Armitage to leak Plame’s name, and in fact promised to fire anyone in his administration who broke the law by unmasking a CIA officer,  his critics argued then, (and continue to argue today) that he in fact authorized the leak as retribution for Wilson’s op-ed piece.

And this, of course, is exactly the issue Obama will confront, particularly if Congress begins an official inquiry into the matter of national security leaks.  If one of Obama’s political aides did, in fact, leak classified information regarding cyber intelligence, it will hardly matter whether Obama authorized it, or knew of it, or not.  The political and legal repercussion will fall squarely on his shoulders.

Let me be clear – the motive for these acts is usually not political venality, or criminal stupidity so much as misguided zeal to carry out the president’s mission; White House aides are particularly susceptible to being more “holy than the Pope”, as presidency scholar Richard Neustadt once put it.  When one is deeply committed to the cause, it becomes all too easy to step over a line, particularly when that line is somewhat fuzzy and indistinct.  Note that Armitage was never prosecuted for his leak, in part because of the difficulty in determining whether he had committed a crime.  However, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, was found guilty and sentenced to 30 months in prison for covering up his discussions with reporters about the Plame affair.

With these examples in mind, I find it perfectly plausible that a high-ranking Obama official, convinced the President’s action in keeping this nation safe has been underappreciated, and wanting to do everything possible to insure his reelection, may have released some classified information to a reporter in the process of providing background material to a story.  Do I know this happened?  Not at all.  But if it did, we should not be surprised.  It wouldn’t be the first time – and it likely won’t be the last.

Meanwhile, our own Danny Zhang was at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus yesterday (Danny’s working on a campaign out there) and caught the President up close and personal, working the rope line.   There’s no truth to the rumor that Danny took the opportunity to advise Obama to read the Presidential Power blog, but Danny did remind me that “It’s great to study American Politics in America!”

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