Ronald Kessler reporting from Washington, D.C.
— An accelerating series of leaks of classified information all have two things in common: They directly endanger national security, and the stories reporting on them paint President Obama as a hero.
News reports on Tuesday disclosed that the FBI is probing the leaking of information about a classified U.S. cyberattack program aimed at Iran’s nuclear facilities, but a close look at recent developments uncovers a broad and disturbing pattern of leaks of some of the nation’s most guarded secrets by the Obama administration.
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|This photo taken on July 9, 2010 shows Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi.
John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism chief, set the tone a year ago when he went on national television immediately after the killing of Osama bin Laden and gave a highly detailed account of the top-secret operation.
Defense Secretary Bob Gates, for one, was shocked.
“Too many people in too many places are talking too much about this operation,” Gates said, adding that the level of disclosures and blabbing violates an agreement reached in the White House Situation Room on May 8, 2011, to keep details of the raid private.
“That lasted about 15 hours,” Gates said with chagrin.
Then came disclosures that directly revealed secrets helpful to the enemy, that could endanger lives, and undermine trust by other countries and potential informants in U.S. intelligence operations.
Soon after the bin Laden raid, word began leaking to the press that a Pakistani doctor had helped the CIA operation.
In fact, Dr. Shakil Afridi reportedly provided critical intelligence on the location and identify of the al-Qaida leader. He had set up a fake vaccination program to obtain DNA during a visit by bin Laden.
Following the leaks, Afridi was arrested and on May 23 he was sentenced to 33 years in prison on a charge of conspiring against the state.
"The blame has been placed on my brother because of America," Shakil's brother Jamil told Fox News.
The protection of secret sources of the United States is not only good sense, it is vital for continuing operations and getting new sources that could improve our security and prevent the loss of American lives. But who will trust us if we leak sensitive information?
And critics of the Obama administration point to a pattern of leaks over a long period:
- On May 9, The Associated Press reported that a CIA asset from Saudi Arabia had infiltrated al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and thwarted a planned “underwear bomb” attack on an airplane bound for America. As a result of that disclosure, the asset had to be extracted and brought to the United States, possibly precluding opportunities for obtaining future inside information from within the terrorist group.
- On May 29, The New York Times ran a detailed account of how President Obama directs U.S. drone attacks based on a classified “kill list” of terror suspects. The story rightly credited Obama with killing top al-Qaida leaders. Sen. John McCain has charged that the kill list leak was politically motivated.
- On June 1, The New York Times ran a story revealing an alleged U.S. covert action program called Olympic Games, designed to thwart Iran’s nuclear program with computer virus attacks utilizing first the Stuxnet computer worm and later the Duqu malware. Thanks to the Times article, which cited U.S. government sources, details of the previously unknown operations are now public, including how the programs were supposed to operate and the involvement of Israeli intelligence. Up to that point, the possibility that the U.S. or Israel was behind the cyberattacks on Iran’s computers was pure speculation. In effect, the Times story provided Iran with a roadmap on U.S. efforts to defeat its nuclear bomb efforts.
- Another front-page New York Times article in 2011 disclosed that the Obama administration had agreed to sell to Israel bunker-buster bombs capable of destroying buried targets, including suspected nuclear weapons sites in Iran.
The Bush administration had rebuffed Israeli requests for the bombs. But word of Obama’s sale to Israel came soon after Republican Bob Turner captured the U.S. House seat vacated by the resignation of scandal-marred Anthony Weiner in a Queens, N.Y., district with a large Jewish population.
Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch cited Turner’s election in a Newsmax column explaining why he had decided to back Obama for re-election in 2012. He referred to a New York Times article reporting that the United States had agreed to back Israel’s call for a return to negotiations with the Palestinians without preconditions, saying the agreement was “affected” by Turner’s win, and stating that “the president should be praised” for “providing the Israeli military with bunker buster bombs” — a clear reference to the Times story about the bombs that had the effect of bucking up Jewish support for Obama.
The leaks — which have accelerated as Obama’s re-election efforts have stumbled — have provoked bipartisan outrage.
“In recent weeks, we have become increasingly concerned at the continued leaks regarding sensitive intelligence programs and activities including specific details of sources and methods,” said a joint statement released by the top members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Select Committee on Intelligence.
“The accelerating pace of such disclosures, the sensitivity of the matters in question, and the harm caused to our national security interests is alarming and unacceptable,” said the statement from Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. — the chair and ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee — and Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, D-Md. – the chair and ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
“These disclosures have seriously interfered with ongoing intelligence programs and have put at jeopardy our intelligence capability to act in the future. Each disclosure puts American lives at risk, makes it more difficult to recruit assets, strains the trust of our partners, and threatens imminent and irreparable damage to our national security in the face of urgent and rapidly adapting threats worldwide.”
Republican Rep. Peter King of New York, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told the New York Post that the leaking of vital secrets reflects an “amateur hour” style of management at the White House.
“It’s a pattern that goes back two years, starting with the Times Square bomber, where somebody in the federal government, probably the FBI, leaked his name before he was captured,” he said.
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“They mentioned we had DNA, which is how the Pakistanis focused on the doctor they arrested.
“It puts our people at risk and gives information to the enemy. And it gives our allies a reason not to work with us because what they do might show up on the front page of The New York Times.”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, directly accused the Obama administration of leaking sensitive intelligence information to make Obama look good.
“This is the most highly classified information and it has now been leaked by the administration at the highest levels of the White House. That’s not acceptable,” McCain said on CBS, referring to several of the recent stories.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney rejected McCain’s claims.
“This administration takes all appropriate and necessary steps to prevent leaks of classified information or sensitive information that could risk ongoing counterterrorism or intelligence operations,” Carney told reporters.
“Any suggestion that this administration has authorized intentional leaks of classified information for political gain is grossly irresponsible.”
By inserting the phrase “for political gain,” Carney avoided denying outright that Obama had authorized the leaks. Obama could have authorized the disclosures without admitting to himself that his intent was to help him win re-election. In that case, since the president can declassify information, the disclosures would not technically be considered leaks — but they would be just as harmful.
The FBI has begun an investigation of at least two of the leaks. In addition to the probe of the cyberattacks against Iran, FBI Director Robert Mueller disclosed on May 16 that the bureau has launched an investigation into who leaked information about the al-Qaida “underwear bomber” plot to place an explosive device aboard a U.S.-bound airline flight.
Overlooked in most of the coverage is the role of the press. When Valerie Plame was exposed as a CIA operative, the press turned the disclosure into a scandal and blamed the George W. Bush administration. Plame was technically undercover but not in any danger.
Yet The New York Times ran 521 stories suggesting it was wrong for the White House, and specifically Karl Rove, to divulge her name. Only 27 of the articles mentioned the person who actually leaked her name to columnist Robert Novak, former State Department official Richard Armitage, who ironically was critical of the Bush administration.
In contrast, the press now is silent on leaks that genuinely impair national security and whether the Obama White House is behind the disclosures. Nor are journalists examining the legitimacy of publishing such information in the first place.
It’s one thing to disclose classified information to expose an abuse — meaning an illegal act for political or otherwise improper purposes.
It’s another to disclose secrets for the sake of revealing secrets, when agencies are doing their jobs properly and when uncovering how they perform them prevents them from carrying out secret operations in the future.
The U.S. won World War II in part because America could intercept and decode German and Japanese military transmissions. That remained a secret until long after the war was over. Back then “loose lips sink ships” was the operative slogan.
If another major terrorist attacks occurs because foreign intelligence services and potential assets no longer want to risk cooperating with the CIA, papers like The New York Times will be the first to condemn the intelligence agencies for failing at their mission.
In their joint statement, the congressional leaders said they plan to “press the executive branch to take tangible and demonstrable steps to detect and deter intelligence leaks, and to fully, fairly, and impartially investigate the disclosures that have taken place.”
In particular, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, called for Capitol Hill hearings about the cyberattack leak.
“I am deeply disturbed by the continuing leaks of classified information to the media, most recently regarding alleged cyber efforts targeting Iran’s nuclear program,” Feinstein said.
“We plan to move legislation quickly, to include possible action in this year’s intelligence authorization act,” the lawmakers said. “We believe that significant changes are needed, in legislation, in the culture of the agencies that deal with classified information, in punishing leaks, and in the level of leadership across the government to make clear that these types of disclosures will not stand.”
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Said Rep. Ruppersberger: “These leaks can be dangerous to our country, they can hurt us with our allies, and they could have very serious consequences. They’ve got to be stopped."
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. He is the New York Times bestselling author of books on the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA. Read more reports from Ronald Kessler — Click Here Now.
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