Don't Be Fooled By Obama's Faux-Righteous Indignation About Leaks

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The president hasn't endangered national security -- and Congress is pursuing the wrong solution. America needs less classified info, not fewer leaks.

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When Joseph Heller's literary heirs satirize the War on Terror's absurdity (for there is absurdity in every war), the treatment of classified information is sure to be as fruitful a theme as it was in Catch-22. For example, the CIA bombarded Pakistan last week with three days of drone strikes, ultimately killing Al Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi. This didn't surprise anyone, for the whole world knows that the CIA uses drones to target Al Qaeda in Pakistan. The drone program is nevertheless classified. The Department of Justice says as much when explaining to judges why it shouldn't be forced to litigate certain cases. And White House Press Secretary Jay Carney is forced into vague locutions when asked about drone kills. "Our intelligence community has intelligence that leads them to believe that Al Qaeda's number-two leader, al-Libi, is dead," he said last week. "I can't get into details about how his death was brought about."

Yet even as most Obama Administration officials are insistent that they can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a drone program, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former head of the CIA, has acknowledged its existence on numerous occasions. John Brennan, the White House's top counterterrorism adviser, has acknowledged its existence too. Ditto Attorney General Eric Holder. And even President Obama himself has acknowledged that the program exists. In their comments, these men have all defended it against its critics. Meanwhile, certain folks privy to the CIA drone program who doubt its efficacy are prohibited from making their arguments, or even acknowledging that the covert program exists.

Absurd, isn't it?

It's an abuse of power too. The Obama Administration demands that various things be kept secret for national-security reasons. By talking about those very things, it demonstrates either that it is harming national security, or that it exploits the classification system for leverage in the political realm.

But which one?

THE LEAK INVESTIGATION

That is essential context in the ongoing controversy over leaks in the Obama Administration. "A bipartisan Congressional chorus has been expressing concerns on cable news shows over national security leaks," Michael Calderone reported last week. "Lawmakers suggested that the White House had sanctioned intelligence disclosures for its own political gain, in an attempt to depict the president as strong and decisive when dealing with suspected terrorists."

Attorney General Eric Holder has even appointed two prosecutors to conduct leak investigations. (They're unlikely to end in prosecutions for revealing state secrets, as Charlie Savage explains.)

One thing I find amazing is President Obama's statement. "The notion that the White House would purposely release classified national-security information is offensive, it's wrong, and people, I think, need to have a better sense of how I approach this office and how the people around me approach this office," he said. "We are dealing with issues that can touch on the safety and security of the American people -- our families or our military or our allies -- and so we don't play with that."

That's nonsense.

Forget the White House generally. President Obama himself has purposely disclosed "national-security information" -- the existence of the CIA drone program -- that his own Justice Department and press secretary treat as classified. I'm glad he's done so. The notion that the United States government should wage ongoing war in multiple countries while keeping it secret from its own citizens is noxious. By my lights, the CIA drone program's existence should not be a state secret. Obama ought to declassify it.

But he hasn't. And he purposely spoke about it publicly, precisely in order to defend himself against criticism. There's no denying it:


 
That brings us back to the White House generally.

As Harvard Law School's Jack Goldsmith notes, when it comes to drones and the Bin Laden killing, "It has been obvious for years that senior national security officials, including White House officials, regularly and opportunistically leak details to the press (or urge subordinate agencies to do so)." Goldsmith goes on to add that "Dan Klaidman's new book confirms this. In connection with the CIA killing of Baitullah Mehsud in August 2009, Klaidman reports, in direct contradiction of the President: 'Though the program was covert, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel pushed the CIA to publicize its covert successes. When Mehsud was killed, agency public affairs officers anonymously trumpeted their triumph, leaking colorful tidbits.'" 

Elsewhere, Josh Gerstein described White House cooperation with Hollywood filmmakers. "Just weeks after Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency officials warned publicly of the dangers posed by leaks about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, top officials at both agencies and at the White House granted Hollywood filmmakers unusual access to those involved in planning the raid and some of the methods they used to do it ..." he wrote. "The Pentagon is now withholding from the public and the press the same name DoD gave the filmmakers." 

Says Scott Shane of The New York Times, "The administration's inconsistency ... has been particularly evident on the drone program. Officials routinely give reporters limited information on strikes, usually on the condition of anonymity." 

Glenn Greenwald adeptly sums up the implausibility of Obama's claim that the White House never leaks national-security information to make itself look good, noting that the various articles that sympathetically portray the president's decisionmaking "repeatedly attribute them to Obama officials," that "these disclosures include glorifying details only those very close to Obama could possible know," and that "if these leaks weren't authorized by the White House, then it's highly, highly coincidental -- an extraordinary stroke of serial good luck for the White House -- that these leaks over and over again have the same effect: depicting Obama in the best possible political light."

Greenwald goes on:

Given all that, it is, I suppose, theoretically possible that the leaks are not coming from the White House, but it's very, very unlikely. But let's assume for the sake of argument that Carney is actually telling the truth this time. That would mean that all of these leaks are unauthorized: which is another way of saying that they are illegal. Doesn't that mean that the DOJ should immediately commence a criminal investigation to uncover the identity of and punish the "three dozen" current and former Obama advisers who furnished details about Obama's "kill list," and the "senior administration official" who hailed Obama's role in the cyber-attacks on Iran, and all the other officials who have planted with newspapers highly flattering accounts of the President's classified role in Killing America's Enemies and Keeping Us Safe?

The Obama Administration has waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers. Yet it has somehow never targeted anyone whose leaks put the White House in a politically advantageous light.

Why is that?

EXACTLY THE WRONG RESPONSE

Congress ought to be demanding that the Obama Administration stop classifying information that everyone knows (like the existence of a CIA drone program) and information that ought to be debated in an election year (like the fact that America is regularly killing people in a given country). It ought to be insisting that Obama stop taking advantage of a double-standard, whereby he gets to say what he wants about state secrets while people who think differently are stifled.

Instead, Senators Feinstein and McCain and others seem determined to resolve the double-standard in the other direction. They want to stop the leaks that, semi-propagandistic as they often are, account for much of the information Americans have about what their government is doing abroad. This despite the fact that there is no evidence that these leaks have harmed national security. (Update: That last sentence is clumsily put. What I mean to say is that no evidence has yet been presented by the Senators or anyone else showing that a leak harmed national security.)

Especially when it comes to the drone program, it's hard to understand how acknowledging something the whole world already knows, classified or not, makes us less safe. In contrast, ample evidence exists that the classified status of the drone strikes makes it more difficult for Congress to debate the issue, for informed bureaucrats criticize it, or for civil liberties groups to litigate it.

Congress ought to be forcing Obama to declassify more. An illegitimate cult of secrecy is the problem. But Feinstein, McCain and others seem determined to have a less transparent executive. They want a man they regard as having put his political prospects above the safety of Americans to be even less transparent about his actions and more secretive.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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