Monday, June 11, 2012

Like a Sieve

As the Obama Administration begins its search for whoever leaked sensitive national security information, we're reminded of the old adage about a blind hog and an acorn.  Supposedly, the sightless pig will stumble across one occasionally, but more than often than not, their search will prove futile.  Call us cynics, but we expect the same results from the just-launched leak probe.

Here are the mechanics of the investigation: the men in charge are two U.S. attorneys, one appointed by Mr. Obama, the other by former President George W. Bush.  At least in theory , they have carte blanche to find out who has been discussing the nation's secrets with reporters from The New York Times and other media outlets.  The two men, Ronald Manchen (U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia) and Rod Rosenstein (U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland) will handle separate investigations into the disclosure of classified information that actually began several weeks ago.

Both Mr. Manchen and Mr. Rosenstein are capable professionals, with the full resources of the federal government to assist in their inquiry.  But the odds of them actually finding the culprit(s)--let along bringing them to justice- are decidedly slim, for a number of reasons.

First, as we've observed on numerous occasions, all administrations leak, usually in an effort to make themselves look good.  For Mr. Obama, recent disclosures about efforts that foiled an airliner bombing plot enhanced his national security credentials, as did subsequent revelations about his targeting of Al Qaida suspects with unmanned drones, and most recently, a long article about U.S. participation about U.S. cyber-attacks against Iran's nuclear program.

To some degree, the leaks seem to have achieved their purpose.  A recent poll gives Mr. Obama higher marks on national security than his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, though some of that margin reflects the advantages of incumbency.  As a governor, Mr. Romney had no real dealings in national security, just as Obama's resume was painfully thin before he became Commander-in-Chief.

But the recent, public disclosures about Mr. Obama's accomplishments come at a price.  After last year's raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed disgust over the flood of leaks that followed the SEALs mission.  Members of the Naval Special Warfare community in eastern Virginia (where the team is based) worried about the potential threat to members of their families, since press accounts divulged so many details about SEAL Team 6 and its location.

That was followed by leaks about a Saudi-led counter-intelligence operations that foiled a planned airline attack, using an underwear bomb.  Within days of the CIA gaining access to the device, details of the effort were splashed across newspapers and broadcasts around the globe.  Intel professionals were outraged; not only did we betray the confidence of a key ally (Saudi Arabia), the U.S. made it extraordinarily difficult for any agent to penetrate Al Qaida in the future--the method used by the Saudi operative to obtain the explosive device.

And it that weren't enough, The New York Times just revealed extraordinarily sensitive details of the cyber-attack that inserted viruses into computer systems associated with Iran's nuclear program.  The Times article provides stunning information about the origins of such cyber-weapons as "Stuxnet" and "Flame," and more importantly, how U.S. and Israeli experts found ways to map the electronic blueprint of key Iranian facilities and jump the electronic "moat" aimed at isolating those complexes from other computer networks.

True, the cyber-war against Iran began under President George W. Bush, but as the Times reminds us, the scope and intensity of such attacks accelerated under Mr. Obama.  And, in that regard, the President deserves credit for taking concrete steps to delay Iran's nuclear program without resorting to a military strike that might trigger a regional war in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, the Obama team let politics get in the way.  Facing a tough re-election battle against Mr. Romney, someone in the administration decided it would be a good idea to talk to David Sanger of the Times (and other reporters) about some of the secret wars being waged around the world.  If the President's poll numbers go up, so much the better.  If our operational security is crippled--and we lose the ability to mount similar operations in the future--well, that's something to worry about down the road.

If fact, the issue is so serious that the chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees (along with the ranking members on those panels) have expressed grave concerns about the recent leaks.  Their recent letter complaining about the disclosures was (perhaps) the final tipping point that persuaded Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint those U.S. Attorneys to look into the scandal.

But if past episodes are any indicator, the trail will eventually grow cold.  The Times certainly won't cooperate with investigators, and there probably isn't much of a paper trail to identify the culprits.  Unfortunately, leaking has become an art in Washington, D.C., and practitioners on both sides of the aisle have mastered the art of disclosing classified information without getting caught.

In fact, the odds of anyone being prosecuted are ridiculously slim.  As we noted in a previous post, the FBI conducted more than 600 inquiries into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information over a 10-year period, beginning in the 1990s.  And how many individuals were prosecuted for those crimes?  Approximately zero.  In fact, the number of government officials who have been punished for leaking classified is painfully thin.

At the top of the list, there's former Vice-Presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby was convicted of lying to government investigators in the case of Valerie Plame, the former CIA operative whose cover was allegedly blown by Bush Administration officials, seeking revenge against her husband, who criticized government policies in Iraq.  It was later revealed that the original source for the leak was another senior government official, Richard Armitage, who was never punished.  We should also mention that Ms. Plame's status as a "covert" operative was one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington.  Her "employer" was well-known as a CIA front company and Ms. Plame even advertised her intel affiliation in various social circles.  

Then, there's the case of Thomas Drake, the former National Security Agency (NSA) official who blew the whistle on the government's warrantless wire-tapping program.  Mr. Drake faced a series of charges (and a long stint in prison) but the feds decided to drop all charges against him on the eve of the trial.  Drake exposed one of the most sensitive intel operations in recent memory, and he walked away a free man.  

Against that backdrop, leakers have little to fear, particularly if they're high up in the administration.  As investigators try to connect the dots, recollections will grow fuzzy, and other senior officials may decide that enough evidence has been gathered, or they may "starve" the investigation of the resources required.  And we haven't even raised the notion of executive privilege, which will probably rear its legal head at some point in the proceedings.

Meanwhile, there's an election looming on the horizon.  No telling what we may read in the Times between now and November.  Secrecy must obviously take a back seat to getting the president re-elected.  And if he loses his bid for a second term, it's just a matter of time before someone connected with President Romney will find a reason to leak something to make their boss look good.                        



1 comment:

Vigilis said...

Former executive editor of the New York Times Howell Raines shared some tantalizing, insiders' knowledge with an audience at the Aspen Institute (2006):

One audience member asked about the role of media leaks. Raines opted not to go in-depth since he no longer is a working journalist, but offered a leak of his own:

"Almost all leakers are lawyers. That's the bottom line."