Lawmakers, media are duplicitous on leaks

July 31, 2012

The level of hypocrisy in the current concern over leaks of classified intelligence information among politicians and the media is stunning.

Republicans are calling for a special counsel to investigate leaks from the White House, arguing that they are being used to help President Obama’s reelection image.

Whose security is being endangered there?

Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., showing Obama administration sensitivity to the situation, has assigned two Justice Department attorneys to investigate.

The media, which complained this year that the administration was being too aggressive pursuing alleged leaks, are publicizing the exaggerated leak complaints while lamenting that government sources are becoming afraid to talk to reporters.

Last week the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence approved an amendment to the fiscal 2013 intelligence authorization bill titled “Preventing Unauthorized Disclosures of Classified Information.”

Such a law wouldn’t prevent leaks. Leaks are part of the relationship between journalists and government officials, especially regarding national security.

Let’s face it, in the past three decades, national security leaks have become a part of the clever public relations that dominate U.S. politics and even government.

Here are the leaks that have generated the current fuss:.

●I’ve written about the story that seems to have gotten the ball rolling: a New York Times piece by David Sanger on June 1. It laid out details of the Stuxnet and Flame computer programs that introduced malware to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program and gather data to assist the project.

Sanger first wrote of the classified projects in January 2009, before Obama took office, based on Bush administration sources. More details poured out since then, in 2011 and this year from private computer security firms.

●There was the May leak about an intelligence agent who infiltrated the branch of al- Qaeda in Yemen and posed as a suicide bomber in a clever operation that uncovered a new type of underwear bomb. Though U.S. officials talked about it after its initial disclosure, the original leak came from Saudi intelligence, according to CBS News.

●Another so-called Obama administration leak is the disclosure of Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who aided the CIA in finding Osama bin Laden and who was arrested and convicted by the Pakistanis. His identity came to light after the May 2011 raid as a result of Pakistan’s probe and the doctor’s arrest, not from a U.S. leak.

That didn’t stop Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, from accusing the White House.

“They disclosed his identity,” he told Fox News.

●Another leak that has drawn GOP ire is the May 29 New York Times story that Obama has been personally approving the al Qaeda targets in Pakistan for CIA drone attacks. It’s hard to say what national security issue is endangered there, but it did burnish Obama’s image, already brightened by the bin Laden raid.

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney picked up the leak issue in a speech July 24 to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, focusing initially on briefings and backgrounders after the Bin Laden raid. The sessions, he said, gave away “secret operational details.”

And while it’s true that in May 2011, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates complained about “too many people in too many places are talking too much about this operation,” Romney described it this way: “Secretary Gates walked into the West Wing and told the Obama team to ‘shut up.’ ”

Then added, “When the issue is the political use of highly sensitive national security information, it is unacceptable to say, ‘We’ll report our findings after Election Day.’ ”

The media’s hands aren’t clean either .

New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, at the Investigative Reporters & Editors annual conference last month, said the Obama administration’s aggressive investigation of leaks “threatens to rob the public of vital information.’’ She said one Times reporter told her, “The environment in Washington has never been more hostile to reporting.’’

I heard complaints like that during Watergate. And I hear them now every time an administration — Democratic or Republican — says it’s going to crack down on leaks. Few professions are as thin-skinned as threatened journalists.

On July 19, Pentagon spokesman George Little issued a statement that said senior officials “will monitor all major, national level media reporting for unauthorized disclosures of Defense Department classified information.”

The Pentagon Press Association wrote to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta the next day, saying it was worried the monitoring reference “could be interpreted” as authorizing “intrusive actions” against defense reporters. It also asked Panetta, “Are you authorized to monitor phone conversations, emails or press workspaces without our knowledge?”

The Senate Intelligence panel’s bill is also hyper-vigilante.

It requires congressional intelligence panels to be notified of any “authorized disclosure of national intelligence or intelligence related to national security” to the media by any “officer, employee or contractor of the Executive Branch.”

There are no definitions of “national intelligence” or “intelligence related to the national security.”

Think of how many reports could be generated.

Another provision tries to limit who can talk with the media to provide “background or off-the-record information regarding intelligence activities.”

Again no definition of “background” or “off-the-record information.”

The legislation limits those background or off-the-record briefings to the director and deputy director of each intelligence agency, or their equals, plus public affairs specialists designated in writing by the director.

All sorts of officials have given such briefings, sometimes weekly from agencies dealing with national security.

Funny that no mention is made of backgrounders on Capitol Hill.

Of course no leaks ever occur from lawmakers or their staffers.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtopost.com/fedpage.

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