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Shadow Government

Obama may not like it, but leaks are an occupational hazard

By Peter Feaver President Obama has said that he is very angry about the leaks coming out of Afghan Strategy Review 2.0: “I think I’m angrier than Bob Gates about it,” Mr. Obama replied. “We have deliberations in the situation room for a reason; we’re making life and death decisions that affect how our troops ...

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President Barack Obama listens during a meeting about the current situation in Pakistan Oct. 7, 2009 in the Situation Room of the White House. Left to right, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Vice President Joe Biden; the President; National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis C. Blair (partially obscured); and CIA Director Leon Panetta. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

By Peter Feaver

President Obama has said that he is very angry about the leaks coming out of Afghan Strategy Review 2.0:

“I think I’m angrier than Bob Gates about it,” Mr. Obama replied. “We have deliberations in the situation room for a reason; we’re making life and death decisions that affect how our troops are able to operate in a theater of war. For people to be releasing info in the course of deliberations is not appropriate.”

“A firing offense?” Reid inquired.

“Absolutely,” Mr. Obama responded.

His anger is understandable, and I have some sympathy for it. It is hard enough to decide what to do without having these internal deliberations play out on the front pages of the papers. Frustration over leaks is an occupational hazard of working in any administration. Every member of Shadow Government can cite multiple times when the president or other principals expressed similar anger during the Bush years.

Still, my sympathies are not unqualified. The longer the review drags on, the more unrealistic it is to expect that the process can continue to be leak-free. The president is right to want to deliberate leak-free, and the president has the right to extend the process as long as he wants, but at some point — and I don’t know when that point is, but now that we are around day 92 82 since McChrystal initially filed his report, we can safely say we are past that point — the blame for the leaks must be a shared matter. (Editor’s Note: It is 82 days as of today and won’t be 92 days until after the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday, which is when the White House hints it will announce a decision … unless they decide to spring the announcement on the ultimate of late-Friday dumps, Black Friday, in which case it would only be slightly less than 92 days.)

And speaking of assessing blame, with the exception of the original leak of the McChrystal report (the provenance of which is still debatable and I am losing confidence in my own hunch that it was Holbrooke or someone connected to him), it is not too hard to tell who is doing most of the leaking: very senior White House folks (I am thinking assistant-to-the-president-level, and higher). The most informative stories have outlined in some detail the objections raised by VP Biden and Chief of Staff Emanuel to the bigger footprint options. Those stories frame the Biden/Emanuel objections in very favorable terms. Most of the leaks (again with the exception of the initial McChrystal report leak) have had the effect of making it slightly more difficult for Obama to pick the option most favored by McChrystal and the other senior military brass.

I suspect that the president, the vice president, and the White House chief of staff have a pretty good idea who are the unnamed SAO’s (senior administration officials) in many of the more detailed stories. And I am very confident that the more junior level officials on the Obama national security team believe that the top rank folks (who have the widest latitude for talking to the press) know who are those SAO’s.  

So my bottom line is that I expect that the Obama SAO’s will not be deterred from leaking, despite the president’s strongly expressed outrage.

Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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