Obama's busy week ahead: Plugging leaked documents, post-Sherrod, plant visits

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2010; 8:52 AM

The White House could be excused for wanting an easy week. This won't be one.

President Obama and his top national security officials will begin the week having to answer questions about how 92,000 pages of classified intelligence reports were leaked from the front lines of Afghanistan, and to counter the impression the documents leave about the war effort in that country.

The documents were posted online Sunday by WikiLeaks.org, but the political shock waves will be felt starting Monday, when official Washington gets back to work and starts sorting out their impact.

First on the agenda will be a discussion about how the leaks originated. The White House already has indicated its displeasure that the nonprofit organization did not give the administration a heads-up that this was coming.

"The United States strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security," National Security Adviser James L. Jones said in a statement Sunday. "Wikileaks made no effort to contact us about these documents -- the United States government learned from news organizations that these documents would be posted."

Obama's Afghanistan policy has been the leakiest part of an otherwise fairly disciplined White House, a frustration for the president that culminated last year in a vow by Obama to fire anyone caught leaking about it.

It was the September 2009 leak of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's secret assessment of the war effort in Afghanistan that forced Obama to conduct his three-month review of the war largely in public view. And the administration has been angered for months that leaks -- perhaps from the military -- were aimed at pushing the president toward greater military action.

The massive publication of the new documents will only increase the pressure inside the White House to determine who is leaking, and for what purpose.

Publicly, the White House has not said anything about the source of the leaks. Earlier this month, officials charged Army Pfc. Bradley E. Manning, 22, of Potomac with leaking classified military documents, so it's possible that he might be a prime suspect for the administration. Pentagon officials declined to say whether he is a target in this most recent release.

Wikileaks, which is run by an international group of volunteers, declined to identify its source for the Afghanistan documents.

But beyond the question of leaks, the administration will have to answer the more substantial question of whether the rather negative assessments contained in the documents call into question the president's December 2009 strategy shift.

According to several news organizations that were given early access to the documents, they paint a bleaker picture of the war effort, and suggest far greater involvement of the Pakistani intelligence service in propping up the very insurgents that U.S. forces are attempting to destroy.

The White House began the communications effort Sunday night, telling reporters that the documents -- which cover Obama's first year in office and several years before -- do not substantially conflict with what the administration has been saying. The Wikileaks documents cover the period from January 2004 to December 2009.

"The period of time covered in these documents . . . is before the president announced his new strategy," a White House official said, speaking on background to discuss the classified documents. "Some of the disconcerting things reported are exactly why the president ordered a three-month policy review and a change in strategy."

The official said the White House has expressed concern in the past about the connections between the Taliban and the Pakistani intelligence service. And the official lashed out at the Wikileaks site, accusing it of having an antiwar agenda.

"It's worth noting that Wikileaks is not an objective news outlet but rather an organization that opposes U.S. policy in Afghanistan," the official said, beginning what will probably be a more concerted effort this week.

Obama has a relatively light public schedule Monday, holding private meetings throughout the day before delivering remarks in the early evening at an event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

That could leave him some time to make comments about the documents. But White House officials are more likely to see how the day plays out. Press secretary Robert Gibbs is likely to get several questions about the documents at his regular briefing, which is scheduled for 1 p.m.

Moving on from Sherrod

One silver lining for the White House: The documents give the talking heads on the cable channels something to talk about other than the Shirley Sherrod race scandal from last week -- a welcome change for a weary West Wing staff.

But the subject of race might not be gone for long. On Thursday, the president is scheduled to give what his aides are billing as a "major education reform speech" at the National Urban League's 100th anniversary convention in Washington.

It was Gibbs, after all, who last week mentioned education policy as an example of a kind of race discussion that the president is trying to have with the country.

"Look at an issue like education," Gibbs said. "We have tried -- I think you would hear of many civil rights leaders talk about education as a civil rights issue. I think the progress that we've made on -- through initiatives like Race to the Top, which have seen an increase in standards, is something that represents -- well, not maybe the traditional topic that you're talking about, but a better sense of equality in this country, at least in terms of the education that's offered to our children."

Will Obama use the appearance before the Urban League, and the subject of education, to talk about race? That's unclear. But depending on how the rest of the week goes, it certainly offers the cable shows a way back into that topic.

Getting out of town

The Afghanistan documents may be hot, but the weather is even hotter. So getting out of town may be the only way to truly escape -- and Obama is doing just that.

On Wednesday, he travels to New Jersey for a speech on the economy and then pops over to the Big Apple for a fundraiser. On Friday, he heads to Michigan for visits to Chrysler and General Motors plants.

In mid-August, the First Family is planning a quick vacation to the Gulf Coast, perhaps hoping to give tourism a boost around the time when the blown-out BP oil well is expected to be plugged for good. And a week later, the president is scheduled to return to Martha's Vineyard for a 10-day respite.

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