On Wednesday, reflecting near-universal outrage, President Obama gave an uncharacteristically forceful statement on the murder of James Foley. It was a moment of leadership. Unfortunately, a transient one.
His statement concluded, the president immediately returned to his vacation, and an unseemly juxtaposition of images ensued. As Obama golfed, Americans watched Mr. Foley’s parents pay moving tribute to their son. Once again, the media reflected on the timing of the president’s Martha’s Vineyard sojourn.
Of course, the White House is hypersensitive to such criticism. Unaware that the good old days — when only conservative media provided scrutiny — are over, the president’s staffers believe criticism remains illegitimate. And so the White House has adopted a predictable three-step process of PR-crisis response.
First, White House staffers attempt to put out political fires by claiming that the controversy isn’t real. When that doesn’t work, they get aggressive with the media and breathe new life into the fire. Finally, ignorant to the long-term damage the first two steps cause, they wait for the media cycle to move on. Their PR strategy is centered in political pyromania.
But occasionally, as on Wednesday, an administration official does something truly absurd. Disconcerted at public perceptions of the Foley murder, the administration leaked the news that earlier this summer, U.S. Special Forces entered Syria to rescue Islamic State–held hostages. The leaker’s intention was clear: Obama tried to save Foley and shouldn’t be criticized for playing golf.
But this is a leak too far. It’s a subversion of national security in order to insulate the president from domestic criticism. And it’s a political choice with heavy policy consequences.
First, consider the message this leak sends to those who serve in the U.S. counterterrorism community, whose members take pride in their culture of implicit trust. Through the leak, the president is telling these professionals that protecting his thin political skin comes first. He suggests that he will use counterterrorism to his own advantage (e.g., the Bin Laden raid) while ignoring the complex challenges it presents.
Moreover, this leak will be seen as an act of extraordinary hypocrisy. Leaking on a political whim while pursuing those who do the same — this is an act of stunning arrogance. And be under no illusions. Because of the nature of this leak — it concerns a top-secret operation in Syria — whoever leaked it is someone with a high-level clearance.
The leak was inspired by base motives, but it also disclosed valuable information. Now that America has confirmed to the Islamic State that America is actively searching for the Western hostages whom IS continues to hold, IS is likely to take greater steps to hide them. In physical terms, this leak makes any future rescue attempt more risky. As counterterrorism expert Robert Caruso told me, “the administration has a pretty cavalier attitude about operations security, and it’s going to get people killed. It may already have — Foley.”
This leak will also feed something else: IS narratives of omnipotence. Centered in Salafi-jihadist sensationalism (a mythology of ordained mission) and empowered by its recent battlefield successes, IS is emboldened. Special Forces operations are inherently high-risk, but by leaking the information that this rescue mission failed, President Obama has handed IS a propaganda victory. IS will now tell its fanatical recruits that American ground troops fought the Islamic State and lost. It will assert that Allah’s divine guidance preserved them. Although such claims will be patently untrue — DEVGRU or Delta Force apparently killed a number of terrorists on the raid — to young men driven by the excitement and zeal that IS offers, reality is whatever IS can sell. From this, the recruits’ connection to the cause will grow.
To be fair to the president, we should note that he has shown some willingness to employ Special Forces with courage and secrecy. Nevertheless, there’s no excuse for this leak. Devoid of strategic value outside a narrow domestic political agenda, it represents the antithesis of good leadership. Instead, it proves just how far this administration has come since “change we can believe in.” Today, as in the Tom Clancy novel Clear and Present Danger, national security has become a subsidiary of obsessive public relations.