September 24, 2013

Everyone was so certain, and they were certain who was responsible for it. Let me be more specific. A cadre of boisterous Republicans were convinced last year that, to boost his reelection prospects, President Obama and his most senior aides were responsible for leaking national security information about a foiled al-Qaeda plot to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner. But that sinister narrative was, well, blown up yesterday when a former FBI agent pleaded guilty for the leak.

The Justice Department announced that Donald John Sachtleben revealed information to an Associated Press reporter about the thwarted attack by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, around the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, and about the recovery of a bomb that was taken to an FBI lab in Quantico. When the AP story broke last year, one of a series of national security leaks that frustrated both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, Republicans tripped over themselves to make wild claims and ascribe nefarious motives to Obama and his top aides.

But, as The Post’s Walter Pincus explained this May, “The authorized leak [from White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan] was to control political damage” from an unauthorized leak that Attorney General Eric Holder called “if not the most serious, it is within the top two or three most serious leaks that I’ve ever seen.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

“I think there was a little premature chest-thum[p]ing,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on May 13, 2012. During a June 7, 2012, interview on CNN, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) accused the Obama administration of being “blatantly political on all national security issues that I’ve been observing of.” He added, “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. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) concurred during a July 24, 2012, interview on Fox News.

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. … And the theme of these stories is that this is a strong national security presidency. And every story quoted high senior-level White House officials.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“It has to be for re-election,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told Politico on June 7, 2012. “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.”

In an op-ed for the New York Daily News a few days later, he claimed, “This administration has been careless with intelligence secrets from the start.” And King called for an independent prosecutor because “Attorney General Eric Holder cannot seriously be trusted to pursue crimes that may implicate senior officials in the administration.”

To be fair, the criticism of the slew of serious national security leaks was a bipartisan affair. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate intelligence committee, was not shy in expressing her outrage to the president and the press.

While the concern about the leaks was justifiable, the conspiratorial Republican rhetoric filtered through the prism of presidential politics was not.  “The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive,” Obama said tersely from the White House press briefing room at the height of the hullabaloo. “It’s wrong.” Now that Sachtleben has pleaded guilty in the al-Qaeda leak, getting Republicans to admit they were wrong in this case is too much to expect, I suppose.

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.