Romney advisor accuses Donilon of leaking to the New York Times

Romney advisor accuses Donilon of leaking to the New York Times

A top advisor to Mitt Romney‘s campaign on Wednesday accused U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon of leaking classified intelligence information to New York Times reporter David Sanger.

The advisor, former George W. Bush envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson, was speaking during a debate at Washington’s Brookings Institution with former senior Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy, who has emerged as one of President Barack Obama‘s top foreign-policy surrogates on the campaign trail.

Williamson was hammering the Obama administration for leaking national security secrets for political gain, a theme of Romney’s speech Tuesday before the Veteran of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nevada.

“I believe every reporter in this town knows that at least one of the sources is in the White House,” Williamson said. “I think the Obama administration has figured out how to do [intelligence sharing]: Have the national security advisor talk to David Sanger and then all intelligence is shared.”

“No one is immune. Nothing is off the table,” Flournoy responded. “[Obama] has also said he will pursue the investigations to their logical conclusions and he will prosecute anyone who is found to have leaked.”

“There’s been no administration that has been more aggressive in pursuing leaks than this one,” she added, pointing out that the administration has appointed two U.S. attorneys to investigate the leaks.

That apparently is not enough to satisfy Romney, who on Tuesday called for “a full and prompt investigation by a special counsel” into what he called “a national security crisis.”

“Whoever provided classified information to the media, seeking political advantage for the administration, must be exposed, dismissed, and punished,” he said.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said Monday that the White House should understand the leaks were coming from within its own ranks, but she retracted that comment Tuesday and said she did not know who the leakers were.

Arming the Syrian rebels

Williamson also said Wednesday that Romney firmly supports direct U.S. aid to the Syrian rebels.

“[Romney has] said we should be willing to arm the moderate opposition,” Williamson said. “He’s said repeatedly he’d be willing and support arming the moderate factions within the opposition.”

In fact, Romney has often said that he supports “working with partners” to arm the Syrian opposition, but Williamson was clear that Romney supports the U.S. government directly providing American weapons to Syrian rebels fighting against the Assad regime.

Williamson ripped the Obama administration for being slow to work with the Syrian opposition, leaving the United States largely in the dark and impinging on the U.S. ability to work with rebel leaders now.

Romney does not support the idea of “safe zones” to protect Syrian civilians and rebel fighters, however, and idea championed by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) as well as several of the former Massachusetts governor’s own foreign-policy advisors.

“He’s said that’s not his position, but he feels we should be arming the opposition, but more importantly we shouldn’t be leading from behind,” Williamson said.

Flournoy countered that the administration has been working with the Syrian opposition for many months, even if it wasn’t in the news. But she said that the administration’s emphasis has been on diplomacy and sanctions, not adding fuel to what many are now describing as an incipient civil war.

“The way change will ultimately happen in Syria is if you can get parts of the inner circle around Assad to defect, and they’re beginning to do that,” she said. “Working the political dimensions of this are the most important piece and that’s what the administration has been focused on from the get-go.”


Threatening Iran

The debate touched on a range of other international issues, and moderator Marvin Kalb tried to tease out the differences between Romney and Obama on each.

On Iran, Williamson said that Romney does not support any deal that would allow Iran to enrich uranium at even low levels, while administration officials have said Iran has the right to limited uranium enrichment for civilian purposes.

“That would be unacceptable to Romney,” Williamson said. He also said Romney would create a “credible threat” of military action against Iran that Obama has not.

“There is no credible threat of force. No one in Tehran or in the region feels that the Obama administration will use force,” Williamson said.

Flournoy replied that Obama is serious when he says Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear, but that there is a year or more at least before Iran could reach the nuclear threshold that would trigger any military action.

“He doesn’t bluff. That is the policy,” she said. “Pentagon planning for this is very robust … the military option is real. The president’s judgment is now is not the time.”

On Israel, Flournoy tried to counter Romney’s critique that Obama has not visited Israel in his first term. Romney will visit Israel this week as part of his three-nation foreign trip that also includes stops in the United Kingdom and Poland.

“When you judge a president’s commitment to Israel, you have to look beyond the itinerary,” she said. “Does anybody question Ronald Reagan’s commitment to Israel? He never went to Israel.”

Williamson responded that Obama’s treatment of Israeli leaders has been insulting and he referenced the March 2010 incident when Vice President Joe Biden delayed his arrival at a dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protest the announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem on the day of Biden’s arrival.

“The vice president of the United States kept the Israeli head of state waiting 90 minutes for dinner because he was having a temper tantrum. You don’t treat any head of state that way, let alone your friend,” Williamson said.

The two advisors also clashed over the merits of Obama’s “reset” policy with Russia and whether China is being held to account for manipulating its currency.

But Williamson praised Obama’s handling of the relationship with India and said, “The president has made good progress [on Chinese human rights] in the governor’s opinion.”

The Cable asked Williamson to respond to Republican complaints that the Romney campaign has been light on details about its foreign policy and has even downplayed the importance of national security during the campaign. The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol wrote Wednesday that the Romney campaign should stop talking about national security as if it’s a low priority for a candidate and a president.

“There’s an understandable desire to have more and more details,” Williamson said. “But in the end what he needs to do is try to present a world vision that is dramatically different from President Obama’s, and a thrust of how he would approach it … and he’s done that.”

“Bill Kristol will never be satisfied that there are enough details and he’s paid to be provocative, but we feel we are laying out a vision for where America should go.”