By far the biggest political story of the weekend, and one likely to be with us in one form or another for a while, concerns Administration leaks of sensitive national security matters (mainly) to the New York Times.
The basics of the story are already well known. On Friday Attorney General Eric Holder directed two U.S. attorneys to look into the leaks, but Senator McCain, along with Senators Graham and Grassley, have called for an independent objective inquiry. They seem to have been motivated in part by a statement the President made on Friday, when he claimed that the leaks did not come from the White House, and that the contention that the leaks were designed to make him look strong in national security was “offensive.”
That contention has indeed been voiced by several critics, including even one or two Democrats. Senator McCain said specifically, “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that these recent leaks of highly classified information, all of which have the effect of making the President look strong and decisive on national security in the middle of his re-election campaign, have a deeper political motivation.”
This news will not come as a surprise to my regular readers. As each of these leaks poured forth, I discussed virtually all of them here: the story about how the President runs the anti-al-Qaeda “kill list”, about chemical weapons in Syria, about Predator strikes and the foiling of bomb plots in Yemen, about the Stuxnet and Flame malware, and so on. And it is true: I did suggest inter alia in my commentaries that at least some of these stories were probably the result of deliberate and politically strategic leaks designed to make the President look strong in an election-year. Describing one of these articles as “fishy”, I made that call weeks ago when the pattern became obvious.
So does that mean that I now think the President is lying when he says that the leaks did not come from the White House? Does it mean I think the Holder Justice Department investigation is a preemptive attempt to cover-up what has been going on?
In Washington it is actually possible for such things to happen in the White House without the President either having ordered them or directly knowing about them. It is possible that others in the Executive Branch, in this case especially the CIA, which has been spinning these and other stories for its own purposes with alacrity, are really behind these leaks and are using some White House staffers in the process. The CIA has already told the Legislative Branch that it won’t cooperate in providing any information on these matters. So we just don’t know, yet. At least I certainly don’t know.
The right thing to do in a case like this is to keep one’s mind open and wait for facts to emerge (if they ever do). But while we’re waiting, we can certainly point to some antics, not in the White House or in the Justice Department, but at the New York Times, that go well beyond “fishy” all the way to surreal.
I am speaking specifically of this New York Times piece by Charlie Savage (“Holder Directs U.S. Attorneys to Track Down Paths of Leaks”). The article quotes the President as saying,
Since I’ve been in office, my attitude has been zero tolerance for these kinds of leaks and speculation. Now we have mechanisms in place where, if we can root out folks who have leaked, they will suffer consequences. In some case, it’s criminal. These are criminal acts when they release information like this. And we will conduct thorough investigations, as we have in the past.
At that point Mr. Savage editorializes that the Administration has already compiled an aggressive record of prosecuting people accused of leaking national security secrets. He cites six such cases, compared with three under all previous Presidents combined. In other words, the President is a strong President—same story.
But the real fun comes at the end of the article, where Savage quotes Dean Baquet, the managing editor of the paper, who claims that the Times’ reporters had come by their information the honest way, doing “tons and tons of reporting” over the course of months. These were not, he says explicitly, “handouts” from the Administration. Savage also reports Baquet saying that the newspaper had told officials about its findings ahead of publication and withheld some technical details about the Stuxnet operation upon request. And then the corker: At the very end of the article, Savage writes: “On Friday, Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for the Times, said the newspaper had nothing further to say. ‘We do not discuss sourcing in articles,’ she said.”
Now think about this for a minute. How would it be possible, ever, to know if Mr. Baquet is telling the truth if one of his own employees (Ha) tells another one of his own employees (Savage) that the sourcing of New York Times’ articles cannot be discussed—including, presumably, this one? In effect, the New York Times has circled the wagons, by which I mean it has created a circular defense: Maybe we received White House leaks and maybe we didn’t, but you’ll never find out because we don’t discuss sourcing. So the managing editor of the paper points to the reporter who points to the spokeswoman who points back to the managing editor, and around and around we go. This is pretty clever. And, indeed, it’s (rather ironically) leak-proof.
What is really going on here? As I said, we really don’t know. At times like this it is worth recalling something Dean Acheson once said: “Things are not always as they seem, but sometimes they are.” If I were a betting man—and I have on occasion been known to be—I’d wager that we have in progress a double cover up, part of it at the Obama Administration Justice Department and part of it in the executive offices of the New York Times. Are the two elements coordinated explicitly, implicitly, or not at all? No way to tell, yet.
Am I sure about this? No. As I’ve already explained, Washington can be a screwy town, and every administration has its moments when some parts of it are clueless about what other parts are up to. Then again, sometimes things are what they seem—and that’s how things seemed to me already some weeks ago. One thing, however, is certain: If my hunch is right, we’re not going to find out about it first by reading it in the New York Times.