Why Is the Government Now Investigating a Leak It Probably Knew About?

It's the story of the most sophisticated state-sponsored cyber attack in history and now the FBI wants to know how it leaked. The trouble is: It appears the Obama administration permitted the leak in the first place.

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It's the story of the most sophisticated state-sponsored cyber attack in history and now the FBI wants to know how it leaked. The trouble is: It appears the Obama administration permitted the leak in the first place. This afternoon, The Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI is investigating into who leaked information to The New York Times's David Sanger for his story confirming the U.S. role in developing the classified Stuxnet computer worm, a virus used to damage Iran's nuclear program. What's interesting about the investigation is, given the level of detail in Sanger's piece, it appears that White House officials cooperated with the story, a point raised during a press gaggle on Friday with White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest:

Q    So, Josh, you won’t comment on the actual content in the Times story, but it cites remarks that the President and the Vice President made inside the Situation Room.  It seems very obvious that this is an authorized leak.  So...

Though Earnest denies the reporter's "characterization" of what happened between the White House and Sanger, the passage the reporter was likely referring to has a direct quote from President Obama and even sources the information to the president's national security team:

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.

Beyond that, Sanger told Gawker's John Cook on Friday, "No government agency formally requested that I not publish the story." How unusual that before the story's publication the government did not protest its release but after it came out, it's apparently so upset about it, it's investigating the leak. To some extent, one would have to assume that the investigation is a result of pressure from Republicans who decried the leak in the last few days.

Speaking with reporters in Singapore, Sen. John McCain said the leaks were "incredibly disturbing" and charged that the White House leaked the story to "hype" President Obama's national security credentials. “We know the leaks have to come from the administration. And so we’re at the point where perhaps we need an investigation,” said McCain.

While it's a distinct possibility the White House leaked the story for political gain, there are, of course, other ways the story could've gotten out. In an interview on Face the Nation on Sunday, Sanger acknowledged that the White House probably liked the story: "I'm sure the political side of the White House probably likes reading about the President acting with drones and cyber and so forth." But he doesn't make it sound like the leak was authorized. "I spent a year working the story from the bottom up, and then went to the administration and told them what I had. Then they had to make some decisions about how much they wanted to talk about it." From that perspective, it sounds like the story may have leaked from any numer of personnel in the U.S. government and not necessarily the White House. Still, what's revealing is Sanger's initial statement that no one protested the release of the story. Charitably, one might suppose that a CIA official or an Israeli official or anyone leaked the story but when brought to the White House's door step by Sanger, the administration saw a story they liked, and decided not to protest its release. Is adding additional information to a story leaked by someone else fair game? One might argue that weighing in on any unpublished classified information is inappropriate or at least hypocritical, given the administration's fierce prosecution of leaks that aren't necessarily flattering to the administration.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.