Ordered Liberty

Exposure of CIA Station Chief Spotlights Administration's Immaturity

Anybody can make a mistake, and that certainly appears to be what led to the Obama White House’s exposure of the top CIA official in Afghanistan this weekend. Unfortunately, as Roger Kimball details, this is not an isolated incident. In year six of the Obama administration, it speaks volumes about not just incompetence but immaturity and the skewed priorities that come with it.

Exactly because anyone can make a mistake, large organizations — presidential administrations included — build layers of vetting into the disclosure of information to the public. In this instance, because the commander-in-chief made a surprise visit to Afghanistan over Memorial Day weekend, the White House put out a list of government officials the president met with. Somehow, that list included the intelligence official’s name with the designation “chief of station.”

This error is so basic that it grabbed the attention of Scott Wilson of the Washington Post, the “pool reporter” who received the list. Regrettably, he’d already sent out the pool report by the time he noticed the station chief designation and thought to ask whether the White House press office had really intended to put out that information.

That’s how the administration learned about what it had done — from a reporter. Think about that. In the composition and disclosure of this list, many people on both the military end and White House end have to have known that such information should never be circulated. That’s not only true as a matter of principle and common sense; it’s empirically true: Fox News reports that this administration has already had to remove a CIA station chief in Pakistan (in 2010) because of an exposure incident. It is astonishing that such an obvious error was not caught.

It is, moreover, tough to be sympathetic because Democrats never are when the shoe is on the other foot. When Valerie Plame was outed as a CIA operative — apparently inadvertently, by senior State Department official Richard Armitage — Democrats turned the error into a major controversy that damaged the Bush administration. Ms. Plame had a desk job at Langley and there are no indications that her exposure caused much harm. (There were reports at the time suggesting that she had been exposed long before through a bureaucratic screw-up.) By contrast, the official just exposed by the White House is the current top CIA official in a war zone that presents tremendous challenges to the United States, one where intelligence gathering is at a premium. The gravity of this error thus appears far more serious than the one over which Democrats spent years demanding a Bush administration scalp.

Finally, to take a longer view, consider (a) the way the Obama administration elevated politics over national security in leaking classified information after the bin Laden raid; (b) the administration’s failure to provide adequate security for American personnel in Benghazi, four of whom were eventually killed; and (c) the irresponsible rules of engagement imposed on our troops in Afghanistan — hampering their ability to conduct operations and defend themselves while under attack. A pattern emerges. This administration is cavalier when it comes to the security of people who put their lives on the line in order to serve our country. It is also cavalier when it comes to intelligence, which is exposed when politically expedient — whether to depict the president as a brilliant commander-in-chief, to satisfy the demands of Obama’s base, or to address other transient needs. Indeed, while I would not criticize a commander-in-chief for spending time with American troops overseas, it is impossible not to notice that this trip to Afghanistan was undertaken while the president is dogged by the VA scandal.

The administration did not mean to expose the CIA station chief in Afghanistan, potentially endangering the officer, his colleagues, and others who cooperated with them. But these errors happen for a reason. Some administrations make it a major priority to protect American personnel and intelligence assets. In this administration, these matters are less of a priority, and we cannot be surprised when errors caused by inattention to detail happen.