Surrogates from the Romney and Obama campaigns faced off yesterday at the Brookings Institution on pressing foreign policy issues. A key topic was the famous national security “leaks” that led to New York Times reporter David Sanger’s great scoop on federal efforts to disable the Iranian nuclear program via cyberattacks.
Richard Williamson, an advocate for Romney, pushed the campaign’s viewpoint that the Obama White House leaked to the Times for political ends. He said this, among other things, as reported in Foreign Policy:
“I believe every reporter in this town knows that at least one of the sources is in the White House,” Williamson said. “I think the Obama administration has figured out how to do [intelligence sharing]: Have the national security advisor talk to David Sanger and then all intelligence is shared.”
First things first: Williamson should check the record. As explained by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Sanger’s book, “Confront and Conceal” carries a note saying, “Almost every senior member of the president’s national security team was generous enough to sit down and talk through their experiences, some more than once.”
Does that mean that Sanger’s tip, his first break in the story, was a White House official? No, it doesn’t. He may well have gathered the tip in “bits and pieces,” to use Ignatius’s words, and placed the matter before the White House once the reporting hardened up. For the record, New York Times Managing Editor for News Dean Baquet says, “We don’t comment on sources.” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor declines to answer a question about Williamson’s contention, noting that an Obama campaign surrogate, Michèle Flournoy, was at the Brookings event to rebut Williamson.
Whatever the case, Williamson has thrown out a claim that’s checkable. That claim, to repeat his words, is that “every reporter in this town” knows a detail or two about Sanger’s sourcing. So I put the question to a bunch of Washington reporters today. Some responded that I absolutely couldn’t quote them; some didn’t respond; some did, and here’s a look:
*Julie Mason, veteran White House correspondent and host of Sirius XM Radio’s “The Press Pool”:
It’s unfortunate to see the campaign trying to co-opt news reporters to bolster an unsubstantiated case like this. David Sanger is a law and a universe unto himself, with his own superior source network. I don’t know who his sources are — I wish I did. I suspect they would surprise me. It sounds like Williamson is banking on — what? Professional jealousy? A general reluctance to admit we’re not as well-sourced as Sanger? — to make a speculative argument. Fail.
*A prominent political reporter:
I think it’s widely assumed that one of Sanger’s sources is [National Security Adviser Thomas] Donilon. But my experience with the source-guessing game is that the guessers are often off the mark or at least incomplete with their guesswork. Nobody knows for sure who Sanger’s sources are except Sanger, the sources and perhaps some Times editors.
*Wall Street Journal Senior Writer James Grimaldi:
I have no idea who David Sanger’s sources are. I could guess and it was a damn good story and I look forward to reading his book.
I can guess some of the people in the White House Sanger ran his info by, but they’re not the “sources.” I suspect by the time this stuff gets to the White House there’s very little officials there can do to stop it.
So perhaps Williamson should amend his assessment. Every reporter in this town — except for four — knows Sanger’s sources.