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National Security Leaks Symptom of Larger Problem of Covert Warmaking

I recall someone telling me at Netroots Nation that the Justice Department had appointed two prosecutors to investigate recent leaks over the Predator drone program, the foiled Underpants Bomb II attack and cyberwarfare against Iran. I wondered how the prosecutors would go about arresting the PR agent for the President’s “tough on national security” re-election campaign. Would they just barge into the national campaign headquarters in Chicago?

For all of the President’s righteous indignation (“The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive”), for all Jay Carney’s protests, the unifying feature of all these leaks recently is that a) they position the President as ruthless in protecting the homeland and b) it’s an election year. I guess the third long article with the quotes from 30 Administration officials sort of made it hard to keep up this charade. Then there’s the point that the prosecutors aren’t independent:

Q: The charges that — given that this investigation will be led by two U.S. attorneys who then report to the Attorney General of the United States, that it’s not an independent investigation.

MR. CARNEY: I think there are very capable people in the Department of Justice and I would refer you to them for that matter. The Attorney General has spoken on this.

I can certainly see why Congress would be upset about this. You have a one-way funnel of information, where certain secrets get the friendly Big Media treatment, and on other secrets, the ones that don’t put the Administration in the best light, not even the relevant oversight committees can get to the material. Mike Rogers and Dianne Feinstein, the respective heads of the Intelligence Committees, say they will watch vigilantly over the investigation. This time that might actually happen, but they ought to go further. They ought to force declassification of a lot of this stuff.

Overall, I’m in the same place as Conor Friedersdorf over this, although this has been a slippery slope toward sanctioned leaks for the purposes of self-promotion for at least a couple recent Presidents.

Forget the White House generally. President Obama himself has purposely disclosed “national-security information” — the existence of the CIA drone program — that his own Justice Department and press secretary treat as classified. I’m glad he’s done so. The notion that the United States government should wage ongoing war in multiple countries while keeping it secret from its own citizens is noxious. By my lights, the CIA drone program’s existence should not be a state secret. Obama ought to declassify it.

But he hasn’t. And he purposely spoke about it publicly, precisely in order to defend himself against criticism […]

As Harvard Law School’s Jack Goldsmith notes, when it comes to drones and the Bin Laden killing, “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).” Goldsmith goes on to add that “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.'”

I’m going to step back and say that at a certain level, the American public wants this kind of detail. They want to see the White House as it gets depicted in movies, they want the juicy insider tidbits about mass killing. They want a real-life episode of Homeland. The problem is that none of this should really be a secret. If we live in a democracy, we have a right to know who is being killed by what in our name. The New American Way of War, to do it all with covert operations and in secret, deeply wounds the Constitutional process. It also makes it hard for those carrying out the operations to trumpet their successes without violating the covert status. So it’s this shift of war from DoD to CIA that’s the root problem. The self-aggrandizing leaks are just a symptom.

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David Dayen

David Dayen