Photo: US Embassy New Zealand
The White House is leaking. Or, at least that’s what some people are saying. We don’t know! But the story is interesting and a bit of a wild ride.
At the centre of the question is an article published in the New York Times the Tuesday after Memorial Day weekend, where the process by which the Obama Administration covertly identifies, designates and kills adversaries was explained in detail.
The thing about the strategy being explained in the nation’s paper of record? It really screws up the “covert” part of it.
Here’s everything you need to know about the leaks from a political and national security perspective.
There’s a whole lot of “leaking”
Here’s the kicker.
Jo Becker and Scott Shane, the journalists who wrote the piece, claim that “three dozen of his current and former advisers” talked with them for the article, on the record or as background.
30-six White House affiliated people, according to the Times, were to some degree willing to gab about what they knew of the minutiae of the top-secret process by which the President and his national security team identify and eliminate perceived threats. And only a couple of them are named.
The article claimed that once a week more than 100 people gathered to discuss the next inclusions on the kill list. Several of those people have spoken to — at least — the New York Times. Is that a leak? Let’s find out.
Domestically, the “leaks” were pretty good for Obama…
It’s sort of telling that the White House didn’t really do anything about the claimed leaks until the story became a media storm late last week.
The strikes have been highly effective. A November 2011 Washington Post article claims that the entire al-Qaeda leadership had been reduced to two people due to the strikes — Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi. Recall that one event that gave the leak story momentum was last week’s drone killing of al-Libi.
According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, 81% of independents approve of the President’s use of drones.
Contrast that with a Gallup poll saying that only 47% of the country believes the War in Afghanistan is going well, and it’s pretty clear that the recent leaks have fed largely good press for the Obama Administration.
The mediocre economy remains the paramount issue in the upcoming election. But this support for drone strategy does have positive impacts on the Obama re-election possibility.
…until John McCain called them out.
On June 5, John McCain hit the Senate floor to blast the Obama Administration for allowing what the Senator from Arizona describes as a “disturbing stream of articles” which elaborate — in unprecedented depth — on the national security process, to the point that the information divulged “inhibit” the nation’s ability to continue with the strikes.
McCain was the first to characterise the conversations with the press as “leaks” and also catalyzed the media to pursue this story.
He was also among the the first to overtly infer that “these leaks were in fact sanctioned by the Administration to serve a purely political purpose.”
The administration strikes back:
Once the story became an issue brought up during White House press conferences and gaggles, that’s when the administration made a pivot.
The New York Times story came out on May 29th, two weeks ago. Still, nobody in the press corps brought it up within the context of “leaks” until nine days later, June 7th, two days after McCain’s speech on the floor.
That’s when Jay Carney, the White House Press Secretary, first fielded a question in a press gaggle en route to Las Vegas. The response, altogether, was boilerplate, but fought back against the allegation.
“Any suggestion that the White House has leaked sensitive information for political purposes,” said Carney on Air Force One, “has no basis in fact.”
Scott Shane, one of the authors of the New York Times article, denied in a blog post many of the claims that had been made about the article, including one which alleged that David Axelrod attended the kill-list meetings.
It says nowhere in the article that Axelrod did anything of the sort.
Shots fired on Friday
On June 8, the story got huge after acknowledgment from Obama, a statement from McCain, and the announcement that Attorney General Eric Holder had assigned two U.S. Attorneys to investigate the possibility of leaks.
Obama said during a press conference that “Since I’ve been in office, my attitude has been zero tolerance for these kinds of leaks and speculation.”
In that regard, he has a point. The President has prosecuted more government employees under the Espionage act of 1917 than any of his predecessors.
Later in the presser, he characterised the idea that the White House would “purposely release classified national security information” as offensive and wrong.
McCain then fired back in a statement on Friday, observing that the President hadn’t unequivocally denied that the leaks came from the White House, and calling for the appointment of a special counsel to fully investigate.
The Senator’s calls were heeded — very promptly — when later that afternoon Attorney General Eric Holder assigned not one, but two U.S. Attorneys — Ronald Machen of D.C. and Rod Rosenstein of Maryland to investigate the leaks from the classified meetings.
That’s the latest on the developments, but the big question remains:
Is stating the obvious really leaking?
The United States buys a whole lot of drones. Many of these drones were explicitly designed to fire missiles.
Moreover, a number of al-Qaeda personnel began to show up dead, as a result of large explosions, throughout Pakistan.
We don’t have ground forces in Pakistan is significant numbers.
While he was running for President, Obama took heat for saying he would pursue al-Qaeda into Pakistan with or without that nation’s consent.
All of this was known before the “leaks.” Adding it together isn’t particularly difficult.
Being informed that the President has a policy to direct those attacks? How much of a leak is that really? As distasteful as it may seem, the United States has a long history of using assassination as a combat strategy, going back at least to World War Two.
Time will tell whether the information used in the Times’ coverage was deep background, a passive leak, or active political manipulation. So far though, everything really has gone along with the script. The White House denied active leaking, an opposition party member called for an investigation, the White House complied. We’ll learn the truth eventually.
Whether or not we’ll get an answer before November, though is the biggest question.
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