ObamaLeaks: Sunday Shows Bring More Bad News for Transparency

Important interviews with top White House aide David Plouffe and Senator Joe Lieberman give advocates for openness reason to despair.

plouffe full reuters.jpg
David Plouffe, a senior adviser to President Obama. (Reuters)

On Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace conducted an important interview with David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser, pressing him on the subject of recent national-security leaks that are now the subject of an official Department of Justice investigation. An outcry over various leaks was prompted by stories in the press about President Obama's kill list, America's efforts against the Iranian nuclear program, the Bin Laden raid, and a bomb plot that was foiled in Yemen. Obama critics suspect he authorized the leaks to make himself look tough on terrorism.

The White House has denied any role in the leaks. Indeed, Fox News Sunday kicked off its segment with a video clip of Obama's blanket denial: "The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive." As I noted last week, no one should be fooled by that display of indignation. President Obama himself and his top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, have both released national-security information -- the existence of the CIA's ongoing drone program -- that the Obama Administration treats as classified. The effect is to advantage defenders of the program in the press and the court of public opinion.

Of course, there is a way that Obama and his surrogates could speak openly about the drone program, or the Iran and Yemen leaks that are apparently the subjects of the investigation.

They could declassify it

Some Obama defenders have gone so far as to speculate that if his White House had anything to do with the aforementioned articles in the press, perhaps the leaked information had been quietly declassified. On Sunday, Wallace managed to get a high-ranking Obama Administration official to say otherwise.

WALLACE: The president can declassify any information, any classified information that he wants. Simple question, did the president or any other top official declassify any of the information that appeared in these articles?

PLOUFFE: Well, the president was very clear about this, Chris, in that interview, that he has zero tolerance for this kind of national security leak. There has now been by the attorney general, two United States attorneys appointed to investigate this, including a Bush appointee. We take this seriously, as anything can be taken. No one more than the president relies on this information to make good decisions and keep this country safe. I believe the person who wrote the book in question has said that no one in the White House provide this information. We need a thorough investigation --

WALLACE: No, he has not said that. David Sanger said that, in fact, he did talk to top White House officials. He said it wasn't leaks. That he's been investigating a -- he did not say that, he, in fact, said he did talk to people in the White House.

PLOUFFE: Well, for the book, sure. He's a prominent national security reporter, obviously, who is writing about these important issues facing the country. But there's going to be a very thorough investigation. The attorney general spoke to us. Two United States attorneys will look under every rock here. This ought to be investigated as thoroughly as anything can, and we ought to wait for the results of that investigation.

WALLACE: But I do want to ask you, because you didn't answer my direction question. Did the president or any other top official declassify any of the information that appeared in these articles?

PLOUFFE: No, the president and his national security team -- first of all, these are the folks who waged just a relentless and effective effort against al Qaeda and its leadership. We decimated most of the top leadership including bin Laden. This national security information is so critical for the president and his administration to make the right decision. Nobody takes it more seriously than the president of the United States.

WALLACE: Forgive me, sir. It's a yes or no. Did the president declassify any of this information?

PLOUFFE: No, of course, he didn't. Of course, he didn't.

WALLACE: He did not?

PLOUFFE: No.

Also note a subsequent exchange where Wallace asks how thoroughly Obama is willing to cooperate with an investigation:

WALLACE: Back in the Valerie Plame investigation in 2003, President Bush ordered any and all members of the administration who knew anything about the outing of Valerie Plame to come forward.

Has President Obama made that same kind of order to all of you?

PLOUFFE: Well, everyone is obviously going to participate in the investigation. You've got, again, two United States attorneys that have been appointed by the attorney general of the United States, who are going to look thoroughly into this. They're going to talk to anybody they want to --

WALLACE: Has the president ordered his staff to come forward?

PLOUFFE: Obviously, everyone is going to participate in the investigation.

WALLACE: Let me ask you, you say everyone is going to participate in the investigation. Back in the Valerie Plame case, President Bush agreed to and sat down for thorough interrogation by federal prosecutors. Will President Obama sit down to be interrogated by the prosecutor in this case?

PLOUFFE: Listen, Chris, I'm not going to get into that right now. The question is, this investigation should be treated seriously. This is --

WALLACE: Why not say yes if he's asked?

PLOUFFE: Chris, I'm not running the investigation, OK? We've got career law enforcement professionals and prosecutors who are going to aggressively look into this. The president and administration want this investigation to be as thorough as possible.

WALLACE: But will the president cooperate including --

PLOUFFE: I'm not going to answer his particular involvement right now, Chris, OK? The point is, everyone in our administration and I think this probably goes with the agencies as well, of course, is going to cooperate with the investigation.

A bit later on the same program, Senator Joe Lieberman called for an independent investigator in the case:

LIEBERMAN: Chris, I've been thinking about this since these leaks came out. And I reached a conclusion, which is that we do need a special counsel and we need a special counsel because special counsel avoids any appearance of conflict of interest. Special counsels, independent counsels, were created for a situation like this, where people might reach a conclusion that investigators, U.S. attorneys even, working for the attorney general, who was appointed by the president, cannot independently and without bias investigate high officials of their own government.

WALLACE: So you are saying the U.S. attorneys that have been appointed by General Holder, Attorney General Holder, not enough special prosecutor.

LIEBERMAN: Yeah, not enough. And I have no reason to distrust or disrespect either of these U.S. attorneys. But here we got one gentleman who gave a contribution to President Obama. No matter what he concludes, people are going to say it was biased.
There is no way that this can possibly turn out well for anyone who values transparency. Either President Obama will get away with dispensing classified information in a way that advantages his side in various national-security policy debates, or there will be a crackdown, and Americans will be even less likely to get even the small amount of information we now have about U.S. actions abroad.
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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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