For a president, there are leaks of information that help you and those that can do you in.
“Deep throat” helped bring down the Nixon administration. Details about the end to Osama bin Laden boosted President Obama’s reputation as a tough-minded commander-in-chief.
Now, the Obama administration is scrambling to show that it’s not leaking national security information – including sensitive secrets – in order to enhance Obama’s chances in what’s turning into a close presidential race.
Ironically, the controversy centers on an administration that has done more than its predecessors to crack down on leaks – sometimes putting it at odds with whistleblower advocates.
Late Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he was naming two federal prosecutors – US Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald C. Machen Jr. and US Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein – to lead investigations of possible unauthorized disclosures of classified information.
“In carrying out their assignments, US Attorneys Machen and Rosenstein are fully authorized to prosecute criminal violations discovered as a result of their investigations and matters related to those violations, consult with members of the Intelligence Community and follow all appropriate investigative leads within the Executive and Legislative branches of government,” Attorney General Holder said.
“These two highly-respected and experienced prosecutors will be directing separate investigations currently being conducted by the FBI,” Holder said. “I have notified members of Congress and plan to provide more information, as appropriate, to members of the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.”
That nod to Congress is particularly important given the current political atmosphere surrounding the issue, which focuses on three recent stories: Details about Obama’s personal involvement in selecting terrorist targets for drone attack (“kill lists”), US cyber-attacks designed to hamper Iran’s nuclear capability, and an agent who infiltrated Al Qaeda in Yemen, posing as a suicide bomber.
White House and administration national security officials were cited as anonymous sources in these stories, leading Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to call the leaks “simply unacceptable.”
“A really disturbing aspect of this is that one could draw the conclusion from reading these articles that it is an attempt to further the president’s political ambitions for the sake of his re-election at the expense of our national security,” Senator McCain said on the senate floor this week.
Administration officials deny the charge.
“Any suggestion that the White House has leaked sensitive information for political purposes has no basis in fact, and has been denied by the authors themselves,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Thursday. “As one of the authors of The New York Times story on Obama’s counterterrorism record said, ‘the notion that the White House prompted the story or controlled our reporting and writing is absurd.’”
President Obama himself weighed in at his press briefing Friday.
"The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive. It's wrong," Obama said. “We're dealing with issues that can touch on the safety and security of the American people, our families or our military personnel or our allies, and so we don't play with that.”
But the White House is under pressure to respond more concretely to the charges – not least because Democrats as well as Republicans express increasing concern about leaks they say could undermine national security.
In a joint statement, Senate and House intelligence committees, chaired by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., called such leaks “alarming and unacceptable.”
“In recent weeks, we have become increasingly concerned at the continued leaks regarding sensitive intelligence programs and activities including specific details of sources and methods,” said the statement. “The accelerating pace of such disclosures, the sensitivity of the matters in question, and the harm caused to our national security interests is alarming and unacceptable.”
The irony for Obama is that the impression of leaking sensitive information for political gain goes against the administration’s record on fighting such disclosures.
“Since Obama took office, a total of six leak-related criminal cases have been filed, including the pending court martial of alleged Wikileaks leaker Pfc. Bradley Manning,” Politico.com noted. “That’s more than all previous cases in modern US history. In fact, the administration has been so forceful in prosecuting leaks that whistleblower and press advocates have complained the legal actions are discouraging disclosures about wrongdoing.” As was the case decades ago with the unauthorized release of the Pentagon Papers, an inside recounting of US involvement in Vietnam, the role of the press comes under scrutiny as well.
"Both the rise and use of drones, and the increased use of cyberwarfare, are the kinds of issues that we have a public service mission to surface so they can be part of a national debate," New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet told the Huffington Post.
"That's our job," Mr. Baquet said. "That's our primary job, to report things that should be part of the national discussion."