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Right Turn
Posted at 10:24 AM ET, 06/12/2012

Leak mystery: Who told what to whom?

President Obama says the White House did not “purposely” leak classified information. But the information at issue could only have originated with those closest to the president. On “ABC This Week,” you could spot one big giant loophole hanging over the president’s denial in this exchange between David Axelrod and George Stephanopoulos:

STEPHANOPOULOS: That this was not for political purposes. But if you look at these articles that were in The New York Times, on both the Stuxnet worm that went after the Iranian nuclear program, and the president’s going over this so-called “kill list” for drones, in both cases they quote members of the president’s national security team who were in the room.
So somebody who was in the room with the president was giving out some of this information or at least discussing classified information.
AXELROD: George, I think the authors of all of this work have said that the White House was not the source of this information. I can’t say that there weren’t leaks. There were obvious leaks, but they weren’t from the White House.

Actually, New York Times reporter David Sanger said he did talk to people in the administration, although much of his reporting came from elsewhere. His interview with CNN’s Howard Kurtz on Sunday is interesting:

KURTZ: . . . Now, I’m not suggesting in any way that you get spoon-fed these stories. These are hard stories to piece together, particularly on national security.
But your story about the computer warfare against Iran, including what Obama said in a tense Situation Room meeting seems like information the administration wanted out.
DAVID SANGER, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, “NEW YORK TIMES”: You know, I have my doubts about that. And I have my doubts about that for several reasons.
First of all, this was 18 months of reporting, long before the political season started.
KURTZ: Right.
SANGER: Secondly, when you’re running a cyber-warfare campaign and you’re doing it at a covert program, I think there are probably a lot of people who didn’t necessarily want that out. I’m sure there are some people on the political side who, you know, always like to read stories about the president in the Situation Room handling presidential problems. There are also people who are less enthusiastic about that.
But the central point, Howie, is you open up the beginning of this book and you begin to read about Olympic games, this classified program.
The first four pages of the book are all about what they did when the program went awry on President Obama’s watch.
The virus, the worm that was supposed to stay secret gets out of the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant and gets onto an Iranian engineer’s computer, replicates itself around the world and suddenly the entire world in 2010 knows that there’s a computer virus aimed at Iran.
KURTZ: It’s a very dramatic story. But in your book, in the acknowledgments, you say scores of officials and former officials helped you.
And you say that you actually credit two of the Obama administration spokesmen on national security for helping set up interviews at all levels of White House staff.
SANGER: Right.
KURTZ: All I’m saying is some of these stories you can’t do without some cooperation from the White House administration.
SANGER: Absolutely. This is a book about the totality of the national security strategy of President Obama, what’s worked and what hasn’t.
It covers Afghanistan and Pakistan. It covers Iran. Of course, it covers China. It covers how they reacted to the Arab spring.
Did I talk to a lot of people in the administration? Of course. How do you report a book about that without talking to people who were involved in the room? But you know, since you read a section that refers to the entirety of the book.

In sum, Sanger did plenty of shoe-leather reporting, but the origin of the material in many instances began with the White House — it had to because only so many people held the information, for example, about Obama’s degree of involvement with the “kill list.” (And if Sanger thinks the White House wasn’t puffing up the president’s image 18 months — or longer — before the election, he might want to chat with some other political reporters.)

Let’s suppose White House official “A” gives some information on the record to Sanger, and Defense Department operative “B” passes on some additional juicy tidbits he got from official “A,” Official “A” has still compromised security. Whether he was doing it 18 months ago to make the president look good or a few months before the election to respond to a specific charge from Mitt Romney is irrelevant. The notion that the administration can deflect responsibility for this stream of leaks by pointing to operative “B” (and operatives C-Z, since I assume there were lots of them) is absurd and morally pernicious (blame the little guys?). Moreover, White House political flacks are deluded if they think that when threatened with criminal penalties, all the operative “B” types out there won’t finger the source of their information.

But someone should ask Axelrod and White House chief of staff Jack Lew these questions: How do they know no one in the White House was responsible for the leaks? Did they conduct an investigation, and if so who investigated them?

By  |  10:24 AM ET, 06/12/2012

Categories:  National Security, Media, Obama White House

 
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