In the past two decades, as the national security spotlight has focused more intensely on the White House, reporters have pushed to get details about key moments and internal debates, from war planning to counterterrorism operations. And administrations, Democratic and Republican, have used the attention to enhance presidential power over national security. The best reporters covering the White House, Pentagon, State Department, Homeland Security Department, intelligence agencies and Congress don’t stop with spokesmen. They reach deep into the bureaucracies. They know the players. They have deployed with military leaders.
National security media elites have rich relationships with current and former government officials. If there is information they need, they know who has it, along with that person’s email address or phone number. That’s how “leaks” — disclosures of details about ongoing operations — happen. In recent weeks, a number of stories and books have included insider accounts of deliberations in the Situation Room and Oval Office. Members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees have expressed concern that the stories reveal sensitive and classified information. Some have suggested that the Obama administration is leaking information for political gain.
Leaks happen for all kinds of reasons: altruistic, bureaucratic, personal and political.
Do White Houses leak? All the time. Some leaks are authorized, some aren’t. More are about domestic than foreign policy, most often floating policy trial balloons, shooting down options the administration doesn’t like or previewing presidential announcements. They can also backfire, as in the case of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Are leaks about politics? Absolutely. Administrations that effectively explain what they are doing tend to be reelected; those that struggle to create a successful media narrative don’t. That is why officials go to great lengths to reconstruct how a consequential decision was made.
Have the latest detailed accounts of complex decisions made in the Oval Office or the Situation Room been part of a reelection strategy? I don’t think so. They are manifestations of wire-to-wire coverage of a commander in chief.
Such situations involve national security risks and political opportunities. Disclosure of the WikiLeaks archive may not have handicapped U.S. policymaking as much as feared, but people were placed at risk. At the same time, by cooperating with the news media, a White House can persuade a reporter to keep truly vital information out of a story — and can put the president’s involvement front and center in key moments. The Obama White House understands this.
The recent stories about drones, target lists, cyber-viruses and bomb plots provide new and sometimes sensitive details about issues that had already been extensively reported — open secrets discussed widely in public, even though the government treats them as classified. For example, the Obama administration recently confirmed the existence of a counterterrorism drone campaign but not where the drones are operating. Yet the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, maintains a map with strike locations based on open sources.
Should we discourage leaks? Or encourage transparency?
The intelligence committees are suggesting that we should say less. But there is a strong argument that we must communicate more.
Take Pakistan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said recently that “we are fighting a war” in its northwestern tribal region. Yet the secrecy around the drone program prevents the United States from explaining it. Pakistanis believe we are attacking, not defending, them. A recent Pew survey showed drone strikes are deeply unpopular around the world. Secrecy is meaningless — and counterproductive.
The real problem is not talking too much about drones, but too little.
P.J. Crowley served as assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011.