Secrecy & Leaks

President Obama’s Non-Credible Statement on Leaks

By Jack Goldsmith
Friday, June 8, 2012, 4:18 PM

President Obama, today, on the possibility of leaks from the White House:

The notion that the White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive, it's wrong, and people, I think, need to have a better sense of how I approach this office and how the people around me approach this office .  . . . We are dealing with issues that can touch on the safety and security of the American people -- our families or our military or our allies -- and so we don't play with that.

This is not a credible statement.

With regard to drones and the Bin Laden attack: It has been obvious for years that senior national security officials, including White House officials, regularly and opportunistically leak details to the press (or urge subordinate agencies to do so).  Dan Klaidman’s new book confirms this.  In connection with the CIA killing of Baitullah Mehsud in August 2009, Klaidman reports, in direct contradiction of the President:

Though the program was covert, [White House Chief of Staff Rahm] Emanuel pushed the CIA to publicize its covert successes.  When Mehsud was killed, agency public affairs officers anonymously trumpeted their triumph, leaking colorful tidbits to trusted reporters on the intelligence beat.  (emphasis added)

With regard to “Olympic Games,” the cyber-operation against Iran, the Sanger NYT story is based on interviews with “officials involved in the program.”  And Sanger’s book from which the story is drawn was based on interviews with “senior administration officials,” including White House officials.  The book has quotations from many Obama-era briefings about Olympic Games with the president (including quotations attributed to the president himself).  And it contains many intimate details about the program – details that Sanger says “were known only by an extremely tight group of top intelligence, military, and White House officials.”  (Some of the early details of Olympic Games appear to be drawn from Bush-era officials.)

It is of course possible, consistent with these points, that the White House did not (as the President guardedly said) “purposely release” classified information about Olympic Games.  Journalists have many tricks for building up insider accounts of White House conversations without the participants in those conversations being the original or main or purposeful source.  Many elements of the leaks to Sanger (and to Klaidman, and to Becker and Shane) no doubt came from civil servants and political appointees around the government who spoke to reporters, without White House authorization, in order to spin an operation in their favor, to settle a bureaucratic score, or to appear important.  The White House may have been involved, if at all, only in correcting inaccuracies or seeking to suppress facts in the Sanger story.

With regard to Olympic Games, in short, I am prepared to believe that President Obama and his White House advisors are genuinely angry about the leak.  It is nonetheless remarkable that President’s Obama takes “offense” at the charge that his White House might have leaked Olympic Games.  It is perfectly natural, in light of the massive White House (or White House-induced) national security leaks of the last few years, especially on drones, to attribute leaks about Olympic Games to someone in the White House.  The President says that the public “need[s] to have a better sense of how I approach this office and how the people around me approach this office,” presumably with regard to classified information.  But he has only his administration to blame for the understandable public sense that the White House leaks national security secrets.  His failure to understand this is an indication of a White House bubble on the issue.