Everyone Has Something to Lose in D.C.'s Leak Fever

Washington is united in outrage over a series of U.S. national security leaks, and it's far from certain who will get burned, but the crackdowns could backfire on the Obama administration, Republicans, Congressional members, and the press.

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Washington is united in outrage over a series of U.S. national security leaks, and it's far from certain who will get burned, but the crackdowns could backfire on the Obama administration, Republicans, Congressional members, and the press. Bending to criticisms that the White House leaked counter-terrorism stories to make President Obama look good, Attorney General Eric Holder appointed two Justice Department lawyers to oversee investigations into the leaks. While Republicans see an opportunity to tarnish the Obama administration's record, the investigations could easily backfire or take down an unexpected actor. “In many cases, things have veered off in different directions," the Brookings Institution's Thomas Mann tells Politico's Josh Gerstein of previous leak investigations. "There are many cases of people being hoisted on their own petard.” Here's who could end up falling victim to "leak fever" this summer.

The Obama administration. The White House is indeed nervous of where the investigation could lead, BuzzFeed's Michael Hastings reports. "The Obama White House appears to be entering the kind of perilous Fill-In-The-Blank-Gate terrain that has eventually engulfed most administrations in the modern era." He notes that the investigation could embroil a range of senior administration officials who've had extensive relations with the press, including Leon Panetta, Ben Rhodes, Tom Donilon, Gen. David Petraeus, John Brennan, Jim Jones, General Doug Lute and others. “It’s going to be trouble, “ says Steve Clemons, a policy analyst with ties to the administration, who also works for The Atlantic. “It’s going to be like the search for who leaked Valerie Plame’s name. If the truth does come out, I suspect it will be a major player. Of course the White House is very nervous.”

Republicans. Several GOP lawmakers are staking out the position that Holder's appointment of DOJ lawyers is insufficient and the task calls for a special prosecutor to ferret out the leaker—despite the fact that the two appointed DOJ lawyers, Ron Machen and Rod Rosenstein, are widely-touted as fair and tough-minded. If Republicans overextend themselves, they could be accused of spearheading an unproductive, tendentious witch hunt. Already, senior Republican leadership have worried that the party is getting too carried away with investigations, taking the light off the bad economy and Obama's handling of it. On Monday, Politico's Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan quoted a veteran House lawmaker as saying the senior leadership isn't gung-ho on a tenacious summer of investigations. "They just want a boring, quiet summer of us not saying anything to screw up [and] get in the way of Obama’s economic news.”

The press. A somewhat overlooked consequence of the leak investigation is the chilling effect it could have on the media's ability to obtain anonymous sources. "Historically even minor efforts to tighten laws against leakers have met with strong resistance from whistleblower advocates who contend it could be used to conceal government wrong-doing," Reuters' Mark Hosenball wrote last week. A number of lawmakers such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss have vowed to introduce legislation to discourage leaks, which could gain momentum if a leaker isn't prosecuted.

Members of Congress. It's possible that the leaks originated from members of Congress, specifically on the House and Senate intelligence committees. But then again, so much depends on what investigators will consider a leak. Do you have to be the first person to tell the press? Clearly, reporters like The New York Times' David Sanger, who reported on classified cyber war efforts, interviewed a range of people who told him classified information. As Sen. Dianne Feinstein said on CNN last week:

What you have are very sophisticated journalists. David Sanger is one of the best.

I spoke with him. He came into my office, he saw me, we worked together at the Aspen Strategy Institute.

He assured me that what he was publishing he had worked out with various agencies and he didn’t think that anything was revealed that wasn’t known already. Well I read the New York Times article and my heart dropped. Because he wove a tapestry that has an impact that is beyond any single one thing, and he’s very good at what he does, and he spent a year figuring it all out.

Was Sanger's alleged approach a way to fish out classified information from Feinstein? And if so, could Feinstein be held responsible for leaking information? All tricky questions.

Nobody. Then of course there's the possibility that absolutely nothing will come from the investigation. As Dan Metcalfe, a former DOJ official and executive director at American University's Collaboration on Government Secrecy, told Michael Hastings, leak cases are extremely difficult to prosecute. “Some of them have gone on interminably. Most of them have not discovered the actual leakers or leakers,” he said. “It's just a matter of time before everyone gives up.” When reached for further comment, Metcalfe put a ballpark estimate on the investigation's lifespan. "Given the nature of what these two guys are investigating, it might be three, four, six months, but hopefully not that much longer, before they reach any conclusions. These are exceptionally capable guys, but such leaks could be practically impossible to pin down. "

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