The White House feels bipartisan heat over leaks

Congressional intelligence committee leaders turned up the heat on the White House over national security leaks, as Diane Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, suggested today that she might join with Republicans who are demanding an investigation by a special counsel. Saxby Chambliss, vice chair of the Committee, has already called for a special counsel to probe how highly sensitive secrets were disclosed to news media. So has John McCain the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And the chairman of that committee, Carl Levin, has announced Senate hearings to investigate these leaks. In addition, Mike Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee chairman and ranking Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger joined Feinstein and Chambliss at a news conference to express their concern, following a closed-door meeting on the leaks issue with James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence.

Some of the leaks in question pertain to a cyber attack on Iran authorized by the Obama administration. Last week, the New York Times revealed U.S. involvement with the Stuxnet virus that was used against Iranian nuclear facilities and caused centrifuges to explode. The story detailed joint U.S. and Israeli efforts to develop the virus, as well as conversations Obama had with his advisors on whether to continue the program when the virus became public in 2010. It cited unnamed current and former U.S., Israeli and European officials.

Other leaks pertain to U.S. drone attacks on terrorists and, most notably, Obama’s role in selecting which terrorists will be targeted. These leaks are ironic because, as Glenn Greenwald notes, the administration has taken the position in court that it can neither confirm nor deny the existence of drone operations.

How damaging are the leaks? Those regarding the cyber attack certainly are unfortunate. Iran should be left to figure out on its own who is targeting its computer systems — the U.S., Israel, or disenchanted forces within Iran. And Israel, the likeliest target of Iranian retaliation, cannot be amused that the U.S. has identified it as a perpetrator.

The revelation that Obama is personally selecting people to kill seems less damaging. The terrorists and the Pakistani government know about the drone attacks. Knowledge of Obama’s direct involvement doesn’t damage our ability to carry out the attacks. As far as I can tell, it undermines our security only in an indirect sense, to the extent that it may make the president himself a marginally more likely target for assassination. Still, for me any leak of classified information is a matter of concern.

Who is doing the leaking? John McCain claims that the leaks are coming from the highest-levels of the White House, which is trying to portray the president as a tough, take-no-prisoners anti-terrorism leader. The administration denies the allegation, but the denial is difficult to credit. First, the leaks present Obama in a politically favorable light, not just as tough but also as a helpful partner with Israel. Second, it’s not clear how the press could have obtained all of this information, much less confirmed it, through lower level sources. Third, we know from what was revealed about the killing of bin Laden that this adminstration is willing to place its desire for good publicity above the need to act with discretion in these matters.

Moreover, Senators Feinstein and Levin must strongly suspect high-level involvement in the leaks. I wouldn’t think that you hold hearings or contemplate a special counsel to investigate leaks by mid-level bureaucrats.

If the White House isn’t behind the leaks, then surely it will want to find out who is. The more it resists a thorough, independent investigation, the easier it will be to infer White House culpability.

Photo courtesy Shutterstock.

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