The politics of leaks

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — All leaks are not created equal. That much is clear from the wide variety of classified information that’s been made public lately.

Some, like the revelations about widespread government snooping or the WikiLeaks information dump, cause major outrage at home and abroad, and land their perpetrators squarely in the soup.

Just ask Edward Snowden, who has been marooned in one of the world’s least appealing spots for more than a week now. With no travel papers — the US State Department revoked his passport — and no clear offer of asylum, he cannot leave Moscow’s dismal Sheremetyevo airport.

Bradley Manning, source of the WikiLeaks sensation, has also had an uncomfortable three years since his arrest in 2010. He’s now on trial for “aiding the enemy,” a charge that could get him the death penalty.

Much has been made of the White House’s penchant for using the US Espionage Act to prosecute leakers. To date, President Barack Obama’s team has brought six people up on charges, twice as many as had felt the weight of the act since its passage in 1917. 

But there are other leaks that have not caused arrests or detentions, at least not yet. In fact, many speculate that the Obama Administration itself has had a hand in “strategic” leaking — releasing classified information for specific purposes.

Inside the underwear bomber

Take the notorious case of the “underwear bomber,” a story The Associated Press broke in May 2012. 

The AP said the CIA had foiled a plot to bring down an airliner using sophisticated technology that could be concealed in the attacker’s undergarments and was not easily detectable by standard airport screening.

This led to the Justice Department issuing a wide-ranging subpoena for the AP’s phone records in an effort to trace what Attorney General Eric Holder called “among the top two or three serious leaks that I’ve ever seen,” one that “put the American people at risk.” 

That action caused severe heartburn in the media, which yelped about First Amendment rights and government repression.

But as the AP editors pointed out, the media organization had held the piece until the government assured them the danger had passed. In fact, the news agency anticipated the government’s own release of information about the plot by a mere 24 hours. 

The White House apparently was concerned that it might look as if the Department of Homeland Security had been less than forthcoming when it announced, on April 30, 2012, that there were no “specific, credible threats” around the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, even as it was sitting on the underwear bomber — figuratively speaking. 

But the slip of the tongue that caused the most damage had little to do with the AP report. Instead, it was traced to the White House, specifically to then top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan. Many accused him of trying to spin the AP story to the government’s advantage.

On May 7, 2012, Brennan held a small, closed teleconference with potential media commentators, in which he sought to downplay the significance of the AP report.

The underwear bomb plot, he stressed, was never a threat to the US public or air safety because Washington had "inside control" over it.

This led Bill Clinton’s former counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, to speculate on ABC’s “Nightline” that there was a Western spy, or double agent, inside the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula (AQAP).

This was then reported as fact by The New York Times and other newspapers. 

The revelation that the CIA had a double agent inside Yemen may well have jeopardized intelligence operations, but it was not the AP’s fault.

The White House roundly rejected the notion that Brennan leaked classified information, calling such claims “ridiculous.”

The story, however, refuses to go away, and came up again during Brennan’s confirmation hearings before he was appointed CIA chief. 

Leaks to enhance the president’s image?

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., never one to miss an opportunity to criticize the Obama administration, excoriated the White House in June 2012 for leaking information to its own advantage. 

In addition to the underwear bomb plot, McCain focused on a US cyber warfare program directed at Iran.

Journalist David Sanger broke the story of the Stuxnet virus in The New York Times and gave more details in his book “Confront and Conceal,” published in June 2012.

McCain blasted the White House for using the leaks to boost the president’s security credentials in advance of the November election. That, along with another story about the president’s direct involvement in approving secret “kill lists,” were just designed to make Obama look tough, McCain insisted.

The White House struck back, vociferously denying any involvement with leaks, and calling McCain’s allegations “offensive.”

"Any suggestion that this administration has authorized intentional leaks of classified information for political gain is grossly irresponsible," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

In his notes on sourcing for “Confront and Conceal,” Sanger says openly that he interviewed dozens of senior officials for the book, and further explains that he consulted with them before publication.

"Following the practice of the Times in reporting on national security, I discussed with senior government officials the potential risks of publication of sensitive information that touches on ongoing intelligence operations,” he wrote. “At the government's request, and in consultation with editors, I withheld a limited number of details that senior government officials said could jeopardize current or planned operations.''

Since everything was so open and aboveboard in Sanger’s reporting, it is somewhat of a mystery why the Justice Department is now pursuing an investigation into retired Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright, at one time the second-highest-ranking officer in the military, and the head of the “Olympic Games” operation that conceived Stuxnet.

Cartwright had been Obama’s pick to be Joint Chiefs of Staff when Admiral Mike Mullen stepped down, but his opposition to the surge in Afghanistan made him unpopular with certain powerful military figures.

Since his retirement, he’s turned into an outspoken critic of the president’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles, telling the Chicago Council on Global Affairs this March that the drone program was producing “blowback.”

“If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted,” he said.

No one is suggesting that the White House is now targeting the general because of his newly critical stance, but the timing is curious.

Houston, we have a problem

The fuss over leaks comes as the administration’s reputation hits an all-time low

Not that the White House is alone in the doghouse. Congress and the Supreme Court are also at rock bottom on the approval scale.

During a speech in San Jose, Calif., last month, the president uttered a phrase he may come to regret:

“If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress, and don’t trust federal judges… then we’re going to have some problems here,” he said.

Well, Mr. President, guess what? You were right on the money.