Obama finds that the Internet bites back

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; A02

For a man who came to power by harnessing the potential of the Internet, President Obama has been oddly out of sorts in recent days as the medium turned against him.

Last week, his advisers embarrassed themselves when they fired a mid-level Agriculture Department official over a supposedly racist video clip on

a right-wing blog -- only to apologize and offer to rehire her when they learned that the innocent woman had been the victim of selective excerpting.

Then, on Monday afternoon, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs found himself trying to tell the world to pay

no attention to those 91,000 classified documents about the war in Afghanistan just published online.

"In terms of broad revelations, there aren't any that we see in these documents," the presidential spokesman said of the WikiLeaks document dump.

And: "I'm -- I'm unaware of a list of concerns that would be different today than they were a week ago, based on what we've seen."

And: "I don't -- again, I don't -- I don't see broad new revelations that we weren't either concerned about and working through this time a week ago."

If those variations of the old "move along, nothing to see here" defense weren't sufficient, Gibbs offered up the rare triple-negative combination denial: "I don't know that what is being said, or what is being reported, isn't something that hasn't been discussed fairly publicly."

So why did John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, say the leaked documents "raise serious questions about the reality of America's policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan" and "may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent"?

The question left Gibbs tongue-tied. "No, no, let's -- well, let's -- let me first be clear about -- I think it is hard -- would be hard to identify anybody that has done as much as Senator Kerry has," he offered.

Ah, okay, then.

What Gibbs could not say was that Obama was being brought down by the same medium that made him. During and after Obama's 2008 campaign, his advisers crowed about how they had found their way around what campaign manager David Plouffe called "the snarky media filter." In a typical iteration, Plouffe bragged, "We reach more people when we send an e-mail than on most nights watch 'NBC Nightly News' and all the cable news channels combined, including Fox."

After helping to undermine the position of the media, Obama and his aides are now feeling the consequences of the decline.

When blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a video that unfairly maligned USDA official Shirley Sherrod, the false story caused an Internet firestorm. The much-maligned mainstream media, including Fox, began making phone calls and within hours cast doubt on Breitbart's account, but by then a panicked Obama administration had already fired the innocent woman.

With the WikiLeaks episode, likewise, Obama officials learned that the unfiltered Internet has no special concern for America's national security. When news organizations report on leaked documents, they typically give the government a chance to argue for withholding certain details -- names of sources and operational details, for example -- that could endanger U.S. troops and their allies. The New York Times -- which, along with two European newspapers, was given a preview of the documents -- decided not to publish names and other details that could compromise American operatives and their informants.

The Times "handled this story in a responsible way," Gibbs told reporters, but the WikiLeaks people, who oppose the war in Afghanistan, "are not in touch with us." After Gibbs sent a message through the Times reporters, WikiLeaks reportedly delayed the release of 15,000 documents to redact names.

But Gibbs was at a disadvantage in responding to the huge document dump, because, as he pointed out, "nobody in this government was afforded the opportunity to see what they do or don't have." The problem for Gibbs is, he wasn't dealing with one of those news filters. "The New York Times didn't publish the documents," he said. "WikiLeaks published the documents."

That left the press secretary with only one defense, and it wasn't very viable: The documents had revealed American officials' suspicions that Pakistan's military intelligence has been aiding the Taliban insurgency, but all Gibbs could do was recommend that people avert their gaze.

"The coverage I read off of the news documents doesn't, I think, materially change the challenges that we have," he argued. "I don't think the challenges that you [could] have listed on a piece of paper this time last week are, quite honestly, different, based on what we read in these documents at this time this week."

Such reasoning didn't impress CNN's Ed Henry, who asked whether "these documents then suggest that this war is too far gone."

"No," Gibbs stammered. "No, I don't -- I don't -- I don't in any way think the documents suggest that." But he did admit that "nobody's here to declare mission accomplished. You've not heard that phrase uttered or emitted by us."

Score another win over Obama for the unfiltered media.

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