White House leaks: lawmakers, experts cite double standard
In 2003, Human Events columnist and Washington Times reporter Robert Novak became the author of a national furor when he published a story revealing the identity of Valerie Plame, then an agent with the CIA. The ensuing scandal about the leaked information spawned a grand jury investigation, a criminal probe, and a federal trial. A junior Democratic senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, signed a 2005 letter urging that an independent counsel be appointed to investigate the matter. Ultimately a White House source, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, would receive a fine and commuted prison sentence, convicted on charges related to the leaks.
But that was then.
In the weeks following the publication of a series of New York Times stories, including detailed accounts of U.S. use of cyber-weapons on Iranian technology systems and revelations about drone strikes and the president’s terrorist “kill list,” members of Congress have rushed to condemn the numerous information leaks that apparently trace back to the White House and to call for investigations and accountability.
Yet the president himself appears only modestly concerned. “I can tell you that this administration, this White House, under the guidance of the president, takes very seriously the need to protect classified and sensitive information,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a press gaggle last week. “…There is no need for special counsel. These things have been sufficiently investigated when that is appropriate.”
So what is the difference between the two leaking scandals?
According to the president of the Foreign Policy Initiative, Jamie M. Fly, it’s in the severity of the offense, and he considers the latest episode worthy of urgent scrutiny. “It’s not common at all for officials to discuss those types of things with reporters,” Fly, a former member of the National Security Council, said, noting the information could imperil ongoing operations, relationships with U.S. allies, and even lives. “It’s above and beyond the kind of leaking that goes on in Washington.”
Tom Fitton, president of watchdog organization Judicial Watch, said these recent leaks “made Valerie Plame look like jaywalking.”
Fitton is an expert regarding the Obama administration’s handling of information; his organization regularly deploys the Freedom of Information Act to obtain records detailing the actions of the presidency. In a groundbreaking release last month, Judicial Watch illustrated the way the administration has already handled privileged information to its advantage, giving filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow access to sources and information regarding the Osama bin Laden raid that included the identity of the commander of Seal Team Six.
As in that instance, Fitton said this current series of revelations appears hugely beneficial to Obama, and that makes Fitton suspicious.
Parsing the president’s words
“The president’s words need to be parsed. He said there were no leaks of classified national security information,” Fitton said. “They were, quote, declassified. The words are the equivalent of ‘what is, is’ in terms of his denials, and it’s belied by what has gone on.”
If Obama authorized the release of the sensitive information, the leaks would not be a criminal offense; but the political consequences of such a move could be devastating as voters evaluate whether and to what degree the president purposely put America and Americans in harm’s way in order to serve his re-election interests.
Fitton said Judicial Watch would be conducting its own investigation into the matter.
In coming weeks, debate will center on which entity is more appropriate to investigate the leaks: a panel of two U.S. attorneys (including Ron Machen, a donor to the 2008 Obama campaign) appointed by the politically beleaguered Attorney General Eric Holder, or an independent counsel.
Equally important is a question of consequences. “I’d like to see the president or Jay Carney or someone else explain what would happen if it is discovered that the leaks came from the White House,” Fly said. “The fact is that it was high-level meetings in the White House situation room being discussed.”
One great concern, Fly said, was that profligate information sharing at the top levels, while acknowledged, would not meet real repercussions, as apparently happened in the days following the bin Laden raid.
“This has actually been a trend in this administration,” he said.