No Comment — June 11, 2012, 1:17 pm

Obama’s Intelligence Striptease

Attorney General Eric Holder has announced the appointment of two prosecutors to investigate recent leaks of classified intelligence. At issue are disclosures concerning the CIA’s drone war in Pakistan and Yemen and a covert cyberattack launched against Iran’s nuclear program. Charlie Savage reports:

“The unauthorized disclosure of classified information can compromise the security of this country and all Americans, and it will not be tolerated,” Mr. Holder said in a statement. “The Justice Department takes seriously cases in which government employees and contractors entrusted with classified information are suspected of willfully disclosing such classified information to those not entitled to it, and we will do so in these cases as well.”

Several members of Congress from both parties this week expressed alarm about recent leaks, and some Republicans had called for the appointment of a special prosecutor with greater independence from day-to-day supervision by the Obama administration to investigate. But Mr. Holder instead assigned two prosecutors — Ronald C. Machen, the United States attorney for the District of Columbia, and Rod J. Rosenstein, his counterpart in Maryland — to take over direction of existing investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, elevating the stature of the cases but not giving them any special powers.

The decision follows a public appearance by President Obama on Friday in which he insisted that claims his administration had leaked information for political purposes were “wrong” and “offensive.” The previous day, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Senator John McCain had both expressed concerns about the leaks and called for an investigation. McCain charged that administration officials were “intentionally leaking information to enhance President Obama’s image as a tough guy for the elections.”

Recent reports on the Obama drone campaign by the New York Times and Newsweek leave little doubt that McCain is right—that administration officials were using reporters to put out a carefully tuned political message presenting Obama as a macho, hands-on president who uses lethal force proactively in the interests of national security. Indeed, the Times report quotes more than a half dozen administration officials by name and notes that three dozen others consented to interviews with the publication. Something like that does not happen without high-level assurances that it is okay to address an issue with the press.

This still does not mean the White House specifically authorized the leaks,If it had, there would be no question of “leaks,” since it technically has the authority to declassify and release information as it sees fit. but it does suggest that it created an environment enabling them. It is no secret that David Axelrod and other senior Obama-campaign strategists believe they can wrest the issue of national security from Republicans—and recent polling backs them up. The issue has the additional advantage of appealing to an electoral constituency—white males over twenty-five years of age—among whom Obama’s approval numbers are dangerously weak. The drone disclosures therefore appear to be closely attuned to Obama’s presidential campaign, sapping his denials of credibility. On the other hand, the disclosures about the Iranian cyberattack seem to have emerged following a journalistic investigation stretching over a year, and they relate to a book, out tomorrow, that apparently does not rely on White House sources.

Still, no student of Beltway politics will be persuaded of Republican virtue on the issue of leaks—clearly, the G.O.P. is hoping to blunt Obama’s national-security gains. Moreover, the election campaigns of 2002, 2004, and 2006 all featured suspiciously timed leaks of classified information that served to enhance the Bush Administration’s national-security posture. Just before the 2002 vote, for instance, Bob Woodward published Bush At War, which portrayed a heroic team determined to shut down Al Qaeda and capture Osama bin Laden. The head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit at the time, Michael Scheuer, was incensed by this politically motivated leaking of sensitive information, later writing in his book Imperial Hubris that “U.S. officials who either approved or participated in passing the information—in documents and via interviews—that is the heart of Mr. Woodward’s book, gave an untold measure of aid and comfort to the enemy.”

The debate over claims of politically motivated leaking hides a more significant issue, however: so much information about national security has disappeared beneath claims about the need for secrecy that it is difficult to have informed discussions about fundamental questions of war and peace—about how the nation’s immense defense and intelligence budgets are expended, and how decisions are made that put the lives of thousands of Americans and others around the world at risk. In his just-released book, The Art of Intelligence, Henry Crumpton, a long-time CIA Clandestine Service officer who ended his career as the U.S. counterterrorism coordinator, summed up Washington’s attitudes this way:

Because of the deep functional and cultural bias towards secrecy and spies . . . intelligence leaders often dismiss the need for public outreach or education. Political leaders generally reinforce this attitude, not wanting any expert views divergent from their own surfacing in the public domain. In fact, politicians want to protect intelligence for their own use, even among themselves.

The debate triggered by the disclosures of the last two weeks is focused on the wrong questions. We should be asking why more of this information was not made available to the public earlier, and why issues surrounding the current military operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other nations do not feature more prominently in American political debate. The public does not need to know every tactical detail about current operations, but it does need a deeper understanding of the country’s strategic objectives and of the analyses driving proposed actions.

Washington today floats in a sea of cognitive dissonance, of which no aspect is more disturbing than the secrecy conundrum. We have a system in which whistleblowers—frequently persons of high integrity who are serving a legitimate public purpose and ought to be shielded—are persecuted, while those who game the national-security system for political gain are rarely investigated. The Justice Department’s usual handling of these matters is an almost perfect inversion of its actual legal duties. The current secrecy regime, which has been in place for several decades, serves the agenda of politicians in both parties who want a public less engaged with, and less informed about, national-security affairs. It is a dagger pointed at the heart of American democracy.

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