The tumult over numerous national security leaks, all of which paint President Obama in very favorable if not heroic terms, reached a fever pitch Friday. At his “doing fine” news conference the president huffed: “The notion that my White House would purposefully release classified information is offensive.” But is it true?
For days leading up to that statement a bipartisan array of lawmakers sternly criticized the leaking, with some Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), flat out accusing the White House of acting for political advantage.
The Senate Republican Policy Committee sent out a short memo pointing out that Obama’s denial stands “in direct contrast to the New York Times article describing the President’s personal involvement in a process ‘to designate terrorists for kill or capture.’ One of the opening paragraphs described the methodology for compiling the story, saying ‘three dozen’ of the President’s ‘current and former advisers’ were interview sources for the story. A second story, about cyberattacks on Iran nuclear facilities, cited discussions with ‘officials involved in the program,’ and went on to say that program ‘remains highly classified.’ ”
Jack Goldsmith, a former Bush Justice Department adviser (and later critic), isn’t buying it, either. He writes of the president’s denial:
This is not a credible statement.
With regard to drones and the Bin Laden attack: It has been obvious for years that senior national security officials, including White House officials, regularly and opportunistically leak details to the press (or urge subordinate agencies to do so). . . .
With regard to “Olympic Games,” the cyber-operation against Iran, the [David] Sanger NYT story is based on interviews with “officials involved in the program.” And Sanger’s book from which the story is drawn was based on interviews with “senior administration officials,” including White House officials. The book has quotations from many Obama-era briefings about Olympic Games with the president (including quotations attributed to the president himself). And it contains many intimate details about the program — details that Sanger says “were known only by an extremely tight group of top intelligence, military, and White House officials.” (Some of the early details of Olympic Games appear to be drawn from Bush-era officials.)
Goldsmith concludes that the president is a prisoner of “the White House bubble” if after a plethora of leaks from his administration he’s truly shocked the White House would be accused of funneling the information.
Some commentators seized on the president’s Clinton-esque use of “purposefully” to characterize and then deny the leaking. What is unpurposeful leaking in his mind?
Former prosecutor Andy McCarthy suggests that “if you know how these things work, the information the Times got is almost certainly not coming directly from the current White House staff; it comes (just as the stories themselves expressly indicate) from intelligence agencies, other administration officials, and former White House staffers who no doubt got the green-light to speak. And note that the Times reporters . . . are careful to deny, as the Daily Beast put it, that ‘the information was spoon fed to them from the White House.’ Well, no — it was fork-lift fed to them by executive branch agencies and former administration officials.”
As it became evident the “trust me” routine wasn’t flying, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. appointed Ronald C. Machen Jr., the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. attorney for Maryland, to head an investigation into the leaks.
I asked two national security legal gurus, one on the right and one centrist, about the appointments. They were generally pleased with the selection. They point out that the “special prosecutor” statute has lapsed and that this arrangement appears to be a good alternative. The conservative expert tells me, “Rod Rosenstein was appointed U.S. Attorney by President [George W.]Bush, worked for Ken Starr, and is an outstanding guy, so if he has real authority, I’m encouraged.” (Rosenstein also worked in the Justice Department and as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Clinton administration.)
Soon enough we’ll know if the president doth protest too much. In the meantime, I have a couple of words of advice for those who will be the subject of the investigation: Lawyer up.