We are in a new debate about leaks, flowing mainly from David Sanger’s new book, “Confront and Conceal,” which is largely about the Obama administration’s covert actions. (The reader should be aware of another personal bias: Sanger is a friend, even though he regularly beats the rest of us in breaking big stories.) What motivates critics is their belief that President Obama’s advisers deliberately leaked secrets.
Actually, it’s more than a belief; Sanger pretty much says it outright. In a concluding “note on sources,” he explains: “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.” Sanger says that concerning his most sensitive revelations, about “Olympic Games,” the code name for a U.S.-Israeli cyberwarfare assault against Iran, “both American and foreign sources demanded complete anonymity.” Maybe so, but in reading the book we can guess who some of the key informants may have been.
Let me offer three cautionary comments — not to minimize the issue of national-security leaks, but to note some realities understood by every journalist working in this area, which may not be clear to the public.
My first caution is that when it comes to national-security leaks, every administration does it. Reading Sanger’s book (and his coverage in the New York Times) it was obvious that he learned many important secrets about cyberattacks against Iran during the George W. Bush administration, as well as during the Obama administration.
Among the sensational Bush-era revelations: The cyberwar against Iran originated in 2006, when Bush complained to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley that his choices about the Iranian nuclear program were to either bomb it or accept it. “ ‘I need a third option,’ Bush told them repeatedly.” Sanger says Bush was later convinced the cyberattack would work when, after elaborate testing of mock-ups, he “saw the remnants of a destroyed centrifuge.”
Sanger also reveals that, during his last year in office, Bush was briefed on a plan to sabotage Iran’s secret nuclear facility outside Qom by planting hidden equipment in the cement pads that would seal the entrance. This would have involved a risky insertion of special operations forces, and “Bush balked,” according to Sanger.
Anyone doubting that the previous administration authorized national-security leaks need only consult the four excellent Bush books by my Post colleague Bob Woodward. There are “secrets” on nearly every page, and the Bush White House has confirmed that in some instances, the president cooperated and instructed others to do the same. When the 9/11 commission was battling over declassification of material, one member recalls preparing a tabbed version of Woodward’s “Bush at War,” to illustrate how much had already been leaked.
My second caution is that good reporters start by assembling stories in bits and pieces. When they have enough, they go to high-level sources in the White House or elsewhere and say: I’ve got the story and I’m planning to run it, whether you cooperate or not. Sometimes this is a bluff, but administrations usually decide it’s best to help the journalist get it right. The stories come to them pre-cooked, in other words, rather than being dished out from scratch.
Sanger offers a frank explanation of how this works in describing his September 2009 scoop about an Iranian letter disclosing the Qom facility: “The issue was too classified to discuss, I was told. Well, I said, it wouldn’t be in a few hours, after we wrote a story describing the Iranian letter and the secret facility.” Top National Security Council sources duly cooperated.
The final caution is that journalists do query government officials before publishing secrets, and they often agree to withhold particularly sensitive details. The disclosures in Sanger’s book are remarkable, but I suspect it’s equally amazing what he had but didn’t publish, as he says, “at the government’s request, and in consultation with editors.”
Why do people confide these wiring-diagram details, which even reporters recognize sometimes shouldn’t be in print? That is one of life’s great mysteries.