On Sept. 17, 1997, C-SPAN broadcast the first live interview from inside the White House Situation Room. Longtime “Washington Journal” host Steve Scully asked former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to describe what really happens in there.
“First of all, let me say that if I was in charge, these cameras wouldn’t be here,” Brzezinski joked.
In much of the post-Vietnam War era, when Brzezinski served, journalists were kept far from Situation Room deliberations. During the Cold War, there was little upside, and lots of risk, in revealing the inner workings of national security.
But in the past two decades, as the national security spotlight has focused more intensely on the White House, reporters have pushed to get details about key moments and internal debates, from war planning to counterterrorism operations.
And administrations, Democratic and Republican, have used the attention to enhance presidential power over national security. They know they can’t ignore the 24-7 media beast. They feed it continually, not just to help the public understand what is happening, but with an eye to the next turf battle, to the next election — and to their place in history, the first draft of which is now written in real time.
The best reporters covering the White House, Pentagon, State Department, Homeland Security Department, intelligence agencies and Congress don’t stop with spokesmen. They reach deep into the bureaucracies. They know the political players. They have deployed with military leaders.
National security media elites (we have Walter Lippmanns and Henry Luces today, too) have rich relationships with current and former government officials. If there is information they need, they know who has it, along with that person’s e-mail address or phone number. That’s how “leaks” — disclosures of details about ongoing operations — happen.
In recent weeks, a number of news stories and books have included insider accounts of deliberations in the Situation Room and the Oval Office. Members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees have expressed concern that the stories reveal sensitive and classified information. Some have suggested that the Obama administration is leaking information for political gain. Two federal prosecutors have been assigned to investigate, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is facing congressional demands that he appoint a special counsel.
Leaks happen for all kinds of reasons: altruistic, bureaucratic, personal and political. We have yet to achieve Middle East peace — not for lack of effort, but because we have yet to achieve a leak-proof process.
Do White Houses leak? All the time. Some leaks are authorized, some aren’t. More are about domestic than foreign policy, most often floating policy trial balloons, shooting down options the administration doesn’t like or previewing presidential announcements. They can also backfire, as in the case of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Are leaks about politics? Absolutely. Administrations that effectively explain what they are doing tend to be reelected; those that struggle to create a successful media narrative don’t. That is why officials go to great lengths to reconstruct how a consequential decision was made. “Tick-tock” news stories reveal conflicting options and heated exchanges, who was in the know, and whose views carried the day with the president.
Have the latest detailed accounts of complex decisions made in the Oval Office or the Situation Room been part of a reelection strategy? I don’t think so. They are manifestations of wire-to-wire coverage of a commander in chief. Stories and books may be timed to this election year, but they are based on editorial decisions made and reporting started 12 or 24 months ago.
Take the case of Stuxnet (so labeled by computer hackers), a worm developed to damage Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. We know about it not because of a White House leak; the worm outed itself two years ago. As David Sanger writes in his book, “Confront and Conceal,” the developers of the secret cyberweapon understood that Iran would eventually figure out why its centrifuges were crashing and that there might be strategic advantages if Tehran knew who was behind it. The message: We did it once and can do it again. Those with knowledge of the “Olympic Games” program — inside and outside the government, and in military, intelligence and political circles — clearly helped Sanger with his reporting.
These situations involve national security risks and political opportunities. Disclosure of the WikiLeaks archive may not have handicapped U.S. policymaking as much as feared, but people were placed at risk. At the same time, by cooperating with the news media, a White House can persuade a reporter to keep truly vital information out of a story — and can put the president’s involvement front and center in key moments. The Obama White House understands this.
The recent stories about drones, target lists, cyber-viruses and bomb plots provide new and sometimes sensitive details about issues that had already been extensively reported — open secrets discussed widely in public, even though the government treats them as classified. For example, the Obama administration recently confirmed the existence of a counterterrorism drone campaign but not where the drones are operating. Yet the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, maintains a map with strike locations based on open sources.
Should we discourage leaks? Or encourage transparency?
Whether or not the revelation of the new and improved underwear bomb from Yemen was planned, the administration was right to discuss it publicly. If an alert traveling public is key to aviation security, then the American people should know what to look for.
Leaks can harm and support a functioning democracy at the same time. As Jack Goldsmith argues in his book “Power and Constraint,” the combination of solid accountability journalism and willing sources that exposed the warantless wiretapping program and CIA black sites reinforced government checks and balances.
Leaks can involve crimes — as, allegedly, in the case against Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, accused of passing classified information to WikiLeaks — but most don’t. Explaining what the government is doing to keep America safe is a vital governmental duty to be responsibly employed, not excessively controlled.
The intelligence committees are suggesting that we should say less. But there is a strong argument that we must communicate more.
Take Pakistan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said recently that “we are fighting a war” in its northwestern tribal region. Yet the secrecy around the drone program prevents the United States from explaining it. The Pakistani people believe we are attacking them, not defending them. A Pew survey released this past week showed that drone strikes are deeply unpopular around the world. Not only is the secrecy meaningless, it is counterproductive.
The real problem is not talking too much about drones, but too little. It’s not about spiking the ball, but about pretending to hide it — in plain sight.
P.J. Crowley served as assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011. He is a fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at George Washington University.
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