I once had a long discussion about leaks with Richard Helms, a thoughtful gentleman who steadfastly refused to reveal state secrets even when threatened with imprisonment. Helms was director of Central Intelligence for many years, and he told me that he had often been asked to identify the source(s) of leaks of sensitive information. “We always found the leaker(s),” he said, “but then nothing happened.” Why? “Because most of the time the leaker was so high-ranking that there was no desire to prosecute or punish.” He said that he’d identified the likes of cabinet secretaries in some of his investigations.
There are two invaluable lessons from Richard Helms’ reflections on leakers. Lesson One: If you want to know who leaked it, you will know.
Then add Lesson Two: But you are not likely to be happy with the answer.
You’ve got two basic options: Option One: you can quietly fold your investigative tent (“just let it die”), or you can prosecute or punish someone who made a mistake in the course of the investigation, even though he wasn’t the actual leaker (Option Two). Two lessons, two options.
Take the “Scooter Libby/Valerie Plame” case. In keeping with Helms’ Lesson One, it didn’t take long to discover that the leak had come from Richard Armitage, the powerful deputy secretary of state, who passed the information to Robert Novak. In keeping with Option Two, nothing was done to Armitage. Instead, Scooter Libby — who had made a false statement to investigators — was prosecuted, convicted, and punished.
The latest round of leaks seems a bit different from these texbook cases. The leaks that traditionally make administrations angry are those clearly designed to challenge official policy. Think the Pentagon Papers, for example, or the various CIA leaks during W’s years in office, aimed at discrediting the war. But the two leaks of the moment — the one about Obama’s personal involvement in the “kill list” of targets for Hellfire missiles, and the one about an alleged U.S.-Israeli joint cyber attack against Iran’s nuclear program — seem designed to make administration policy, and especially President Obama himself, look good.
As Andy McCarthy reminds us, you don’t need an investigation to identify the sources for these stories, because the journalists have told us who they are, if not always by name, invariably by rank and serial number:
The Times tells you who its sources are. At the very beginning of the 6300-word kill-list epic, it says: “In interviews with The New York Times, three dozen of [Obama's] current and former advisers described Mr. Obama’s evolution since taking on the role, without precedent in presidential history, of personally overseeing the shadow war with Al Qaeda.” The account goes on to quote, for example, former White House chief-of-staff Bill Daley, who not only confirms the existence of a kill-list but describes the considerations behind adding names to it. Current and former national security officials are quoted, in many instances by name (e.g., national security adviser Thomas Donilon and former national intelligence director Dennis Blair). And when names are not given, the Times quotes, for example, “one participant” in the approximately weekly meetings — videoconferences run by the Pentagon but involving national security officials across the administration — who describes some of the criteria for adding or removing terrorists from the kill-list.
So it’s child’s play for a competent investigator to identify the dots in the picture. Helms’ Lesson One applies bigtime.
Well, then it gets more interesting. The next logical question goes to the Oval Office. “Here are the names of the leakers, Mr. President,” (as if he didn’t know) “what do you want to do about it?”
Is President Obama going to demand punishment for those who told journalists stories that make him look determined to fight terrorism and take aggressive action against Iran’s nuclear project? Not likely. Indeed, the odds are quite substantial that he loves those leaks, and he may well have initiated them.