Good Leak, Bad Leak
A look at the Obama administration's hot-and-cold approach to secrets.
There's something troubling about the recent leaks to the New York Times about President Barack Obama's involvement in authorizing the targeted killings of suspected terrorists and launching cyberattacks against an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility: they're coming from the same administration that has prosecuted more government officials under the Espionage Act of 1917 for sharing classified information with the media than all previous administrations combined. (As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wrote in a 2010 memo, "People in the intelligence business should be like my grandchildren -- seen but not heard.") Just this week, an American general who suggested that U.S. and South Korean Special Forces were parachuting into North Korea to conduct espionage was replaced in what the military insisted, amid murmurs of disbelief, was a routine personnel change.
This contradictory posture toward national security leaks has exposed the White House to accusations this week that it clamps down on whistleblowing when the disclosures undermine its agenda but eagerly volunteers anonymous "senior administration officials" for interviews when politically expedient. Salon's Glenn Greenwald condemned the "administration's manipulative game-playing with its secrecy powers," the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer called the report on Obama's targeted killings a "White House press release" (the report's authors dispute that claim), and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle decried the "accelerating pace of such disclosures," calling for an investigation and new legislation to address the problem. "They're intentionally leaking information to enhance President Obama's image as a tough guy for the elections," Senator John McCain (R-AZ) charged on Tuesday.
There’s something troubling about the recent leaks to the New York Times about President Barack Obama’s involvement in authorizing the targeted killings of suspected terrorists and launching cyberattacks against an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility: they’re coming from the same administration that has prosecuted more government officials under the Espionage Act of 1917 for sharing classified information with the media than all previous administrations combined. (As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wrote in a 2010 memo, “People in the intelligence business should be like my grandchildren — seen but not heard.”) Just this week, an American general who suggested that U.S. and South Korean Special Forces were parachuting into North Korea to conduct espionage was replaced in what the military insisted, amid murmurs of disbelief, was a routine personnel change.
This contradictory posture toward national security leaks has exposed the White House to accusations this week that it clamps down on whistleblowing when the disclosures undermine its agenda but eagerly volunteers anonymous “senior administration officials” for interviews when politically expedient. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald condemned the “administration’s manipulative game-playing with its secrecy powers,” the Washington Post‘s Charles Krauthammer called the report on Obama’s targeted killings a “White House press release” (the report’s authors dispute that claim), and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle decried the “accelerating pace of such disclosures,” calling for an investigation and new legislation to address the problem. “They’re intentionally leaking information to enhance President Obama’s image as a tough guy for the elections,” Senator John McCain (R-AZ) charged on Tuesday.
The White House, for its part, has dismissed this allegation as “grossly irresponsible” and argued that, in fact, it seeks to plug leaks that could jeopardize counterterrorism or intelligence operations. But as the examples below suggest, the Obama administration hardly has dealt consistently with counterterrorism and intelligence leaks over the past three-and-a-half years.
Leak: In late May, the New York Times, drawing on interviews with “three dozen of [Obama’s] current and former advisers,” reported that the president personally approves the names on a “kill list” of suspected terrorists, describing one scene in the White House Situation Room in which Obama pores over a chart of targets resembling a “high school yearbook.” While the story cited several anonymous sources, the reporters also quoted aides such as National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon (pictured with Obama above) and Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan directly. As Michael Cohen noted this week at Foreign Policy, the revelations may provide Obama with a political boost given that a whopping 83 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s drone policy.
Leak: Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst, is currently charged with aiding the enemy, among other counts, for working with WikiLeaks to orchestrate the biggest leak of classified information in U.S. history — one that included 250,000 diplomatic cables (many of which were deeply embarrassing for the United States, to say the least), tens of thousands of classified documents from Afghanistan, and a video of a U.S. helicopter strike killing unarmed civilians in Baghdad. This week, the judge in the case ordered the U.S. government to hand over its assessments of the damage that Manning, who faces life in prison if found guilty, caused to U.S. interests around the world.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Leak: Last week, the New York Times reported that Obama has accelerated a campaign of cyberattacks known as “Olympic Games” against Iran, temporarily disabling 1,000 centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility (pictured above) through the Stuxnet computer worm. The reporting was based on “interviews over the past 18 months with current and former American, European and Israeli officials involved in the program, as well as a range of outside experts,” none of whom were named. Some political observers suspect that the administration leaked these details to emphasize the president’s aggressive action to prevent Iran — the country that Americans feel poses the greatest danger to the United States — from acquiring nuclear weapons, particularly during an election year in which Mitt Romney has criticized Obama for being soft on Tehran.
Leak: In 2010, a senior National Security Agency employee named Thomas Drake was indicted for providing classified information to a Baltimore Sun reporter about a costly, invasive, and ultimately botched NSA technology program called Trailblazer — charges that could have landed him 35 years in prison. Instead, Drake pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor (misuse of an agency computer) and served no prison time after the government refused to disclose details about the documents Drake allegedly leaked. At the sentencing, the judge called the Justice Department’s handling of the case “unconscionable,” noting that Drake had been through “four years of hell.”
Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images
BIN LADEN RAID
Leak: In the aftermath of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, anonymous U.S. officials talked to reporters about everything from the most minute details of the operation itself to the fake vaccination drive that the CIA set up in Abbottabad, Pakistan, to obtain DNA from the al Qaeda leader’s family. In May, the government watchdog group Judicial Watch revealed that the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House granted Hollywood filmmakers access to a Navy SEAL who was involved in planning the raid. Earlier this week, John McCain suggested that the administration’s “flurry of anonymous boasting” about the bin Laden operation had outed Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who ran the CIA’s vaccination program and was recently sentenced to 33 years in prison by a Pakistani court for high treason.
Leak: In 2011, a former CIA officer named Jeffrey Sterling was arrested for disclosing classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen (shown above) about Operation Merlin, a failed CIA effort to undermine Iran’s nuclear program, which Risen used in his 2006 book State of War. Later in 2011, Risen fought a subpoena to testify at Sterling’s trial in what he characterized as a defense of “the First Amendment and freedom of the press.” A federal appeals court panel is still deciding whether Risen should be forced to testify, as Sterling’s trial hangs in the balance. “Sanger writes on successful Iranian operation, gets wide access,” AP reporter Matt Apuzzo tweeted last week, in reference to David Sanger’s recent articles in the New York Times on Obama’s cyberattacks against Iran. “Risen writes on botched Iranian operation, gets subpoenaed.”
Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press
Leak: When the American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (pictured above) was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen last September, political leaders and legal scholars demanded that the Obama administration release a declassified version of the Justice Department memo that provided the legal rationale for killing a U.S. citizen without a trial. (For what it’s worth, most Americans approve of strikes against suspected terrorists, even if they are American citizens.) It wasn’t long before the contents of the memo were leaked to the New York Times — an action Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith, in an article for Foreign Policy, described as an attempt by the executive branch to “have its cake (not talking about the [drone] program to serve diplomatic interests and perhaps deflect scrutiny) and eat it too (leaking to get credit for the operation and portray it as lawful).” Another law professor, Kenneth Anderson, accused the administration of “conducting the foreign policy of the U.S. by leaked journalism.”
Leak: In January, the Justice Department charged former CIA officer John Kiriakou with leaking classified information to journalists about the identity of a CIA analyst who participated in 2002 detention and interrogation of al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah (Kiriakou also gave an interview to ABC News in 2007 in which he described waterboarding as torture). A month later, when White House press secretary Jay Carney noted that three Western journalists had died while trying to illuminate the “truth” about the bloodshed in Syria, Jake Tapper of ABC News asked Carney how his praise for “aggressive journalism abroad” squared with the administration’s attempts to “stop aggressive journalism in the United States by using the Espionage Act to take whistleblowers to court.”
Carney sidestepped the question, noting that the cases Tapper was referring to involved “highly sensitive, classified information,” and returned to the brave journalists in Syria. “I particularly appreciate what they did to bring that story to the American people,” he explained.
Administration officials, of course, have at times brought highly sensitive, classified stories to the American people — when they had good stories to tell, that is.
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF
More from Foreign Policy
Russia’s Defeat Would Be America’s Problem
Victory in Ukraine could easily mean hubris in Washington.
Russia’s Stripped Its Western Borders to Feed the Fight in Ukraine
But Finland and the Baltic states are still leery of Moscow’s long-term designs.
Europe’s Energy Crisis Is Destroying the Multipolar World
The EU and Russia are losing their competitive edge. That leaves the United States and China to duke it out.
With Winter Coming, Europe Is Walking Off a Cliff
Europeans won’t escape their energy crisis as long as ideology trumps basic math.