An Annotated Guide to All Those White House Leaks

The 10 Obama administration disclosures that Attorney General Eric Holder should investigate.


In an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder dismissed Republican calls for a special counsel outside of the Justice Department to investigate a spate of recent leaks. GOP politicians such as Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) have accused the White House of illegally and irresponsibly authorizing the disclosure of classified information on the government’s counterterrorism efforts, targeted killings, and cyberattacks against Iran in an effort to score political points and bolster the president’s national security credentials. President Barack Obama, for his part, has called such allegations “offensive” and “wrong.”

Holder has assigned two U.S. attorneys to probe the recent national security leaks. “And the charge that I’ve given them is to follow the leads wherever they are,” he told the committee, “in the executive branch or some other component of government.”

The scope of the Justice Department’s investigation remains unclear, perhaps, as the New York Times suggests, because revealing which leaks are the focus of the probe “would implicitly confirm that certain reports contained accurate classified information.” (Some have predicted that the investigation will focus less on drone strikes and more on the cyberattacks against Iran and an Associated Press report in May on a foiled bomb plot by al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate.)

But the texts at the heart of the current debate — a New York Times article by David Sanger (based on a new book), another New York Times article by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, and a Newsweek article by Daniel Klaidman (also based on a new book) — have all come out within the last two weeks, creating a kind of tipping point of juicy leaks that has stoked outrage among pundits and lawmakers. If Holder wants his investigators to truly follow every lead, these three studies of Obama’s national security policies are a good place to start — particularly the key sections highlighted below.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran” — By David Sanger, New York Times

Sanger mentions early on in his article that none of the American, European, and Israeli officials he interviewed about the computer worm that Obama unleashed on an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility “would allow their names to be used because the effort remains highly classified,” and the meeting described below — not to mention the specifics of the discussion and the president’s direct quote — would surely fall into this sensitive category. But who are the national security team members “in the room”? At this juncture, we’re only told that Obama, Biden, and Panetta were present, but one imagines other aides were there as well.

The leak casts Obama as careful about jeopardizing national security but also committed to pressing forward with an alternative to military confrontation with Iran despite major hiccups in the operation:

At a tense meeting in the White House Situation Room within days of the worm’s “escape,” Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, Leon E. Panetta, considered whether America’s most ambitious attempt to slow the progress of Iran’s nuclear efforts had been fatally compromised.

“Should we shut this thing down?” Mr. Obama asked, according to members of the president’s national security team who were in the room.

Told it was unclear how much the Iranians knew about the code, and offered evidence that it was still causing havoc, Mr. Obama decided that the cyberattacks should proceed.

Sanger quotes an “architect” of Olympic Games, as the cyber campaign against Iran was known, a couple of times in the passage below, though the second time he specifies that the source worked on an early deployment of the worm. Sanger does mention at one point in the article that Gen. James Cartwright joined intelligence officials in proposing the initial idea of a cyberattack against Iran to President George W. Bush, but otherwise he does not do much name-dropping.

More than anything else, the disclosures below smack of a boast about the high-wire act that the administration managed to pull off:

Getting the worm into Natanz, however, was no easy trick. The United States and Israel would have to rely on engineers, maintenance workers and others — both spies and unwitting accomplices — with physical access to the plant. “That was our holy grail,” one of the architects of the plan said. “It turns out there is always an idiot around who doesn’t think much about the thumb drive in their hand.”

In fact, thumb drives turned out to be critical in spreading the first variants of the computer worm; later, more sophisticated methods were developed to deliver the malicious code.

The first attacks were small, and when the centrifuges began spinning out of control in 2008, the Iranians were mystified about the cause, according to intercepts that the United States later picked up. “The thinking was that the Iranians would blame bad parts, or bad engineering, or just incompetence,” one of the architects of the early attack said.

It’s unclear whether the meeting below is the same briefing that Sanger refers to in the first excerpt above, but several details align closely (a gathering with Obama and Biden shortly after the worm’s escape from the Natanz facility in the summer 2010, ending in Obama’s order for the cyberattacks to continue). The similarities suggest that Cartwright and Morell may have been in the room in the meeting referenced in the first passage as well.

In the summer of 2010, shortly after a new variant of the worm had been sent into Natanz, it became clear that the worm, which was never supposed to leave the Natanz machines, had broken free, like a zoo animal that found the keys to the cage. It fell to Mr. Panetta and two other crucial players in Olympic Games — General Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Michael J. Morell, the deputy director of the C.I.A. — to break the news to Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden….

“We think there was a modification done by the Israelis,” one of the briefers told the president, “and we don’t know if we were part of that activity.”

Mr. Obama, according to officials in the room, asked a series of questions, fearful that the code could do damage outside the plant. The answers came back in hedged terms. Mr. Biden fumed. “It’s got to be the Israelis,” he said. “They went too far.” …

“I don’t think we have enough information,” Mr. Obama told the group that day, according to the officials. But in the meantime, he ordered that the cyberattacks continue.

Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images

Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will” — By Jo Becker and Scott Shane, New York Times

Many elements of the Obama adminisration’s targeted killing policy had already become public before this article. The president had acknowledged conducting drone strikes in Pakistan, Attorney General Eric Holder and White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, among others, had issued legal rationales for targeted killing, and the U.S. memo justifying the strike against the American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki had been leaked to the New York Times. This helps explain why senior administration officials such as Brennan, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, and former White House Chief of Staff William Daley are quoted by name discussing Obama’s campaign against terrorists in Becker and Shane’s article. (This week, Sen. Lindsay Graham complained about Donilon’s involvement in Sanger’s new book as well: “Mr. Donilon, in effect, is the hero of the book as well as the commentator of record on events,” Graham said.)

What this New York Times article revealed was the process by which suspected terrorists are designated to be killed, and Obama’s personal involvement in ultimately approving the “kill list.” In the excerpt below, the reporters offer few clues about who the “officials” who recount Obama’s comments in the counterterrorism meeting (which included more than 20 staffers) might be. The authors say more generally that they conducted interviews with “three dozen” current and former Obama advisors for the article.

In the passage, Obama comes across as not being squeamish about using force but setting standards and avoiding civilian deaths whenever possible. (The reporters, citing an anonymous official, later refer to the terrorist suspect biographies that Obama studies as “baseball cards” — terminology that Daniel Klaidman also uses in his report, attributing the phrase to military officials.)

President Obama, overseeing the regular Tuesday counterterrorism meeting of two dozen security officials in the White House Situation Room, took a moment to study the faces. It was Jan. 19, 2010, the end of a first year in office punctuated by terrorist plots and culminating in a brush with catastrophe over Detroit on Christmas Day, a reminder that a successful attack could derail his presidency. Yet he faced adversaries without uniforms, often indistinguishable from the civilians around them.

“How old are these people?” he asked, according to two officials present. “If they are starting to use children,” he said of Al Qaeda, “we are moving into a whole different phase.”

It was not a theoretical question: Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.

Like the anecdote above, the detailed look at the classified nominations process below suggests an orderly procedure for eliminating threats to the United States while minimizing collateral damage. One imagines the Justice Department will have a tough time determining which of the more than 100 participants in these Pentagon meetings may have spoken to the New York Times:

It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.

This secret “nominations” process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia.

The video conferences are run by the Pentagon, which oversees strikes in those countries, and participants do not hesitate to call out a challenge, pressing for the evidence behind accusations of ties to Al Qaeda.

“What’s a Qaeda facilitator?” asked one participant, illustrating the spirit of the exchanges. “If I open a gate and you drive through it, am I a facilitator?” Given the contentious discussions, it can take five or six sessions for a name to be approved, and names go off the list if a suspect no longer appears to pose an imminent threat, the official said. A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan, where that agency conducts strikes.

The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name. He signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan — about a third of the total.

Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations. A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions. And he knows that bad strikes can tarnish America’s image and derail diplomacy.

The following example of Obama’s drone warfare doctrine relies on interviews with a senior member of the intelligence community and other U.S. and Pakistani officials. Interestingly, the blog emptywheel has pointed out that the account differs substantially from the description of the strike against the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud that the journalist Joby Warrick gave in his book The Triple Agent, though the two accounts are not necessarily inconsistent.

In Daniel Klaidman’s new book, the author writes that former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel “recognized that the muscular attacks could have a huge political upside for Obama” and “pushed the CIA to publicize its kinetic successes.” When Mehsud was killed, Klaidman continues, “agency public affairs officers anonymously trumpted their triumph, leaking colorful tidbits to trusted reporters on the intelligence beat.”

Here’s how Becker and Shane describe the strike:

One early test involved Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. The case was problematic on two fronts, according to interviews with both administration and Pakistani sources.

The C.I.A. worried that Mr. Mehsud, whose group then mainly targeted the Pakistan government, did not meet the Obama administration’s criteria for targeted killing: he was not an imminent threat to the United States. But Pakistani officials wanted him dead, and the American drone program rested on their tacit approval. The issue was resolved after the president and his advisers found that he represented a threat, if not to the homeland, to American personnel in Pakistan.

Then, in August 2009, the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, told Mr. Brennan that the agency had Mr. Mehsud in its sights. But taking out the Pakistani Taliban leader, Mr. Panetta warned, did not meet Mr. Obama’s standard of “near certainty” of no innocents being killed. In fact, a strike would certainly result in such deaths: he was with his wife at his in-laws’ home …

But not this time. Mr. Obama, through Mr. Brennan, told the C.I.A. to take the shot, and Mr. Mehsud was killed, along with his wife and, by some reports, other family members as well, said a senior intelligence official.

The Times reporters don’t get much from unnamed U.S. officials on the TADS program below, but the information that is divulged suggests that the Obama administration has implemented rules to govern its expanding drone program in Yemen (Klaidman reveals the existence of TADS in his reporting as well). Again, here’s Becker and Shane:

Today, the Defense Department can target suspects in Yemen whose names they do not know. Officials say the criteria are tighter than those for signature strikes, requiring evidence of a threat to the United States, and they have even given them a new name — TADS, for Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes. But the details are a closely guarded secret — part of a pattern for a president who came into office promising transparency.


Drones: How Obama Learned to Kill” — By Daniel Klaidman, Newsweek

In his new book, Klaidman offers this detailed account of a closed-door, top-level meeting following a botched drone strike that killed civilians in Pakistan only days after Obama assumed office. (The president’s angry reaction to the incident, concern about civilian casualities, and decision to tighten standards in the wake of the strike are also recounted in Becker and Shane’s article, and attributed to a “top White House adviser” and other “aides.”) We don’t know much about who beyond former CIA Director Michael Hayden and his deputy Steve Kappes attended the meeting described below.

As Obama briskly walked into the Situation Room the following day, his advisers could feel the tension rise. “You could tell from his body language that he was not a happy man,” recalled one participant.

Obama settled into his high-backed, black-leather chair. Hayden was seated at the other end of the table. The conversation quickly devolved into a tense back-and-forth over the CIA’s vetting procedures for drone attacks. The president was learning for the first time about a controversial practice known as “signature strikes,” the targeting of groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known. They differed from “personality” or “high-value individual” strikes, in which a terrorist leader is positively identified before the missile is launched.

Sometimes called “crowd killing,” signature strikes are deeply unpopular in Pakistan. Obama struggled to understand the concept. Steve Kappes, the CIA’s deputy director, offered a blunt explanation. “Mr. President, we can see that there are a lot of military-age males down there, men associated with terrorist activity, but we don’t always know who they are.” Obama reacted sharply. “That’s not good enough for me,” he said. But he was still listening. Hayden forcefully defended the signature approach. You could take out a lot more bad guys when you targeted groups instead of individuals, he said. And there was another benefit: the more afraid militants were to congregate, the harder it would be for them to plot, plan, or train for attacks against America and its interests.

Obama remained unsettled. “The president’s view was ‘OK, but what assurances do I have that there aren’t women and children there?'” according to a source familiar with his thinking. “‘How do I know that this is working? Who makes these decisions? Where do they make them, and where’s my opportunity to intervene?'”

More closed-door drama involving Cartwright, who Klaidman later says formed a “kind of special troika on targeted killings” with Brennan and Obama by early 2009, is also recounted with remarkable precision and detailed dialogue:

At a Situation Room meeting, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, briefed the president and his national security advisers on a “kinetic opportunity” in southern Somalia, Al-Shabab’s stronghold. There was intelligence that a high-level operative associated with the group would be attending a “graduation ceremony” at an Al-Shabab training area. But the military couldn’t pinpoint his precise location at any given time. So why not just take the whole camp out? The Pentagon had even prepared a “strike package” that could devastate an entire series of training areas. Obama was skeptical, but listened without revealing his doubts. At the end of Mullen’s presentation, Obama said, “OK, let’s go around the table.”

In effect Obama was inviting dissent with Admiral Mullen. None of the principals raised objections. But then Obama pointed to one of the uniformed men sitting just behind Mullen, against the wall: James “Hoss” Cartwright, the four-star Marine general and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Obama knew Cartwright, and valued his candor. “Mr. President, generally the wars we’ve been prosecuting have had these rules,” Cartwright said in a low-key, Midwestern manner. An enemy “did something to us, we went in and did something back — and then we had a moral obligation to put back together whatever we broke. In these places where they have not attacked us, we are looking for a person, not a country.”

Cartwright was now beginning to veer off from Mullen, his superior officer. Then he laid it on the line: “If there is a person in the camp who is a clear threat to the United States we should go after him. But carpet bombing a country is a really bad precedent.” Some of the other military men began to shift in their chairs. “I ask you to consider: where are we taking this activity? Because the logical next thing after carpet bombing is that we go there and open up a new front.”

Obama seized on Cartwright’s words to lay down his own marker. “That’s where I am,” he said. He told his assembled advisers that he was committed to getting bad guys — terrorists who posed a clear and demonstrable threat to Americans — but that he wanted “options” that were precise. The signature strike against Al-Shabab was a no go.

Klaidman takes readers inside “secure conference calls” on targeted killings and “Terror Tuesday” briefings at other points, including the excerpt below about Obama’s determination to hunt down Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. It isn’t clear how Klaidman got insight into Cartwright’s thinking about Obama’s aggressive approach to defeating the terrorist leader.

The president made sure he got updates on Awlaki at every Terror Tuesday briefing. “I want Awlaki,” he said at one. “Don’t let up on him.” Hoss Cartwright even thought Obama’s rhetoric was starting to sound like that of George W. Bush, whom Cartwright had also briefed on many occasions. “Do you have everything you need to get this guy?” Obama would ask …

But as the Americans were closing in on Awlaki, Obama let it be known that he didn’t want his options preemptively foreclosed. If there was a clear shot at the terrorist leader, even one that risked civilian deaths, he wanted to be advised of it. “Bring it to me and let me decide in the reality of the moment rather than in the abstract,” he said, according to one confidant.

C.E. Lewis/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

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

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