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

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?


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.'" 

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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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