The AP Yemen leak case: When speculation about White House spinning turns out wrong

September 26, 2013

Hani Mohammed/AP -Honor guards in Sanaa, Yemen, carry coffins of soldiers killed in an al Qaeda attacks

“I think there was a little premature chest- thumping in this whole thing, and I`ve ordered a preliminary review. And I will tell you, this has been a damaging leak. We shouldn`t underestimate what really happened here. When you jeopardize our foreign service liaison partners, any of them that may or may not have been involved, or you jeopardize the conclusion of wrapping up all of the people involved, that`s dangerous to our national security…. This is not anything that should be used for a headline. Our national security should be exempt from any November at any time in any year.”

– Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” May 13, 2012 

“It has to be for re-election. They can deny it all they want. But it would require a suspension of disbelief to believe it’s not being done for political purposes.”

– Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, interview with Politico, published June 7, 2012

“Who benefits? Who’s benefited from these leaks? That’s what you always look for. And obviously the portrayal of the president as a strong and courageous leader throughout this narrative is what it’s all about. And the second aspect. of course, is that this administration has been blatantly political on all national security issues that I’ve been observing of. And so, I think it’s very clear that these leaks came from the White House, people within the White House itself and these people are very politically oriented.”

– Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), interview on CNN, June 7, 2012

It’s clear to me that the leaks coming out of the White House were orchestrated to create a political advantage for the president. [Mitt] Romney’s right. Within 45 days, you had three articles talking about Obama being a decisive leader, choosing the kill list himself, the CIA efforts to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program and a big story about how we infiltrated an al Qaeda team in Yemen.”

– Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), interview on Fox News, July 24, 2012

We do not ordinarily do fact checks about statements from so far in the past. But we are returning to these comments, more than a year after they were made, because of this week’s guilty plea by a former FBI agent for leaking classified information to the Associated Press about a CIA operation to obtain a bomb device made by al-Qaeda in Yemen. The disclosure came in the midst of several other high-profile leaks, and as you can see, lawmakers immediately jumped to the conclusion that the White House deliberately leaked the Yemen story to aid the president’s re-election campaign.

Given that it turns out that the leaker was actually a retired FBI agent, not a White House official, we wondered: Does anyone owe the White House an apology? Or at least admit they were wrong in this case?

The Facts

One of the biggest fallacies about reporting in Washington is that most big scoops, especially in the national security realm, are handed on a silver platter by administration officials to eager journalists. That’s rarely the case.

Most of the really big stories start with a tidbit that a reporter picks up somewhere — a mere piece of a puzzle. Sometimes it is inadvertent; The Fact Checker knows one reporter who once obtained a big scoop because of a casual comment at a child’s soccer game. Over time, a reporter gathers more parts of the puzzle until he or she gathers enough pieces to approach the administration for comment.

At that point, the administration generally freaks out. Either officials try to discourage publication or, failing that, they might work with the reporter to either put their own spin on the tale or to correct some misimpressions. That’s because no reporter ever understands 100 percent of what’s going on; he or she might only have 50 or 60 percent of it right.

The charging document for former FBI agent Donald Sachtleben (who, in an unrelated matter, also pled guilty in a child pornography case) is interesting reading and we have embedded it below. The document — which carefully makes no mention of a CIA operation — makes clear that Sachtleben did this on his own. His tip started with a gossipy discussion with a reporter about what might transpire at an upcoming Justice Department news conference. The reporter and Sachtleben had had a three-year reporter-source relationship, demonstrating that the leak came about because the reporter was diligent about developing contacts.

Sachtleben Charging Document by The Washington Post

Once the AP approached the White House, the administration unsuccessfully tried to persuade it to hold off on publishing the story. Nevertheless, as our colleague Walter Pincus has documented, the AP still framed the story wrong, suggesting the administration had misled Americans about the possibility of al-Qaeda threats around the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death. That wasn’t the issue, as the operation was about getting the CIA’s hands on the bomb.

As Pincus reported:

In effect the story turned the disclosure of what was a highly secret, important clandestine operation into an action that somehow showed the Obama administration misleading the American public about the level of the al-Qaeda threat in the midst of a presidential election year.

In an effort to counter the misimpression caused by the story,  John Brennan, then-White House counterterrorism chief, along with others, held backgrounders with analysts and reporters and disclosed immediately after the AP story appeared that there was no threat to the United States — in effect, no real “al-Qaeda plot” because the whole affair was run by the CIA and was thus under U.S. control.

The CIA use of a Saudi agent to get a bomb device by convincing the terrorists he would blow up an America-bound aircraft was a riveting story. But there were other goals for the operation, including finding the location in Yemen of the bomb builder.

Not knowing all the facts when the original story was written, the AP had put the story in the wrong context. Those new facts that were released late on May 7 by the administration attempted to set the record right while also trying to control the political damage that could arise from the AP story.

In other words, the administration tried to spin the news after it was reported. This, to some extent, backfired when Reuters, AP’s main competitor, reported that Brennan’s briefing appears “unintentionally to have helped lead to disclosure of the secret at the heart of a joint U.S.-British-Saudi undercover counter-terrorism operation.”  That article focused on how one person briefed by Brennan made a “logical leap” that the CIA controlled the operation.

This became an issue in Brennan’s confirmation hearing to be CIA director, and so he provided written answers for the record about the briefing (starting on page 18.) Asked if he would have changed his briefing, Brennan said no and added: “Once someone leaked information about interdiction of the IED and that the IED was actually in our possession, it was imperative to inform the American people consistent with Government policy that there was never any danger to the American people associated with this al-Qaeda plot.”

No matter what one thinks about Brennan’s actions, it is pretty clear the original leak had nothing to do with the White House. So what is the response of lawmakers who made the allegations last year?

Rep. Mike Rogers: “The willingness of senior administration officials to speak on conference calls to their surrogates about the sensitive details surrounding this event while it was still unfolding was unnecessary and unhelpful,” said Susan Phalen, spokeswoman for the Intelligence Committee.

Rep. Peter King: “The congressman stands by what he said,” said spokesman Kevin Fogarty.

Sen. Lindsey Graham: no response.

Sen. John McCain: His spokesman Brian Rogers provided a long statement, making the point that the Yemen/AP case is just one in a series of national security leaks.

Senator McCain’s main question on these leaks, as he repeated in the CNN interview you cited, is, “who benefits?” This week’s guilty plea in the Yemen case is a positive development, but the last several years have seen a series of leaks that have obviously had the purpose and effect enhancing the Administration’s image on national security issues.

These include leaks about the “Stuxnet” cyber attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities, the drone “kill list” program – both of which are apparently still under investigation – as well as leaks of classified information about the bin Laden raid which were so egregious that then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates actually went to the White House to tell National Security Advisor Tom Donilon that the Administration needed to “shut the f@*k up” about it. Then, after overwhelming public pressure forced the Administration to appoint prosecutors to specifically investigate the leaks, the Washington Post reported leaks about the leaks investigation. The Post’s report makes clear that individuals investigating these leaks, or otherwise associated with the investigations, were themselves leaking sensitive information to the press about how the leak investigations were being conducted. More recently there have been leaks regarding arms shipments finally making their way to Syrian rebels after months and months of delay.

The Pinocchio Test

The Bob Gates anecdote is an interesting one, as it concerns his annoyance at Brennan’s blow-by-blow account of the bin Laden operation. That’s certainly an example of a White House trying to spin the news.

But that’s not the same as the White House deliberately leaking a sensitive operation to the AP. Despite the certainty with which these statements were made, it turns out that the leaker was someone far from the White House — yet another contractor, in fact. The story developed out of shoe-leather reporting, not a golden leak from the White House.

Lawmakers should be careful about jumping to conclusions about possible leakers, without having any facts at hand except a suspicion of political gamesmanship. Retrospectively, they earn Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

 


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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Glenn Kessler · September 25, 2013