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.
Furthermore, I rather suspect that the president does not want much discussion of those leaks for another reason: I think a lot of the content is false. I think the Times journalists swallowed a good deal of nonsense. Do you really think he spent many hours choosing the specific targets for our killer drones? I don’t. For one thing, his White House lawyers must have warned him against the practice, because it would expose him — directly and personally — to prosecution for war crimes from bodies like the International Court of Justice, or the various foreign courts that have, on occasion, tried to indict Henry Kissinger or Donald Rumsfeld for their policy decisions. Any attorney worth his billable hours would insist that his client shield himself from such worrisome consequences, by insisting that others — folks in the Pentagon or CIA, for example — make those decisions.
Do you think that President Obama is the sort who spends hours pouring over lists of potential targets and then makes the targeting decisions? It seems out of character to me. Obama seems more inclined to make “big picture” decisions, like increasing the number of drone strikes, than to get involved with the nuts and bolts.
And what about the cyberwar against Iran? The leaks would have us believe that Obama drove the cyberwar (started before he took office) and then had the Israelis brought in. In the past few hours, a very different version has emerged from Israel. Yossi Melman, a veteran Israeli reporter with well-established sources in the intelligence agencies of that country, wrote in Haaretz:
The Israeli officials actually told me a different version. They said that it was Israeli intelligence that began, a few years earlier, a cyberspace campaign to damage and slow down Iran’s nuclear intentions. And only later they managed to convince the USA to consider a joint operation — which, at the time, was unheard of. Even friendly nations are hesitant to share their technological and intelligence resources against a common enemy.
In other words, it was an Israeli initiative, and the Obama administration had to be cajoled into joining in. Doesn’t that sound like the Obama who has singled out Israel for harsh criticism, who has yet to visit Israel, and who has vetoed the congressional bill to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? I think Timesman David Sanger was gulled into writing that Obama was the driving force behind Stuxnet.
Which brings us back to the “now what?” question. Those many members of Congress who are rightly upset at seeing sensitive matters on the front pages of newspapers and in sensational books are adopting the wrong methods in dealing with it all. They should demand sunshine of public inquiry, not a closed investigation that can drag on for years, which is the most likely result of the activities of “special prosecutors.”
This is not a legal matter, it’s a political and policy issue. If Obama ordered or approved the leaks, there is no crime, since he’s the declassifier-in-chief; he can reveal anything he wishes, without legal consequence. Turning this over to lawyers and judges would be just one more case of the criminalization of policy. If you oppose Obama’s expansion of assassinations, say so, and challenge the policy. Don’t act as if leaking details about a practice the whole world has known about for years is the central issue.
If, in fact, the leaks themselves were part of a systematic deception of the American people, that should be made plain, and those who designed and conducted the deception should pay the political price for their lies.
Now what? First things first. Let’s get the facts. Congress can do it, all by itself. And if it turns out that a good deal of the “information” in those stories is false, then the journalists who were gulled into writing a lot of nonsense might even want to tell it like it is.
UPDATE: Thanks to Dan Raviv–the co-author of the book on Israeli intelligence with Yossi Melman, who informs me that Melman is no longer with Haaretz. Indeed, the link above is to the Raviv-Melman web site.