Among all the words in the press airing the Obama administration’s secret national-security programs, one sentence stands out. Appearing in the New York Times, it explains why President Barack Obama personally approves drone strikes: “A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions.”
Now, who would know that President Obama is a student of Augustine and Aquinas — or to put a finer point on it, that President Obama considers himself a student of Augustine and Aquinas? It’s hard to see the president interrupting deliberations with his generals and top intelligence officials to parse the finer points of great Christian authors from centuries ago. And who would take care to tell a reporter that the president’s wide-ranging reading of works dating from the fifth and 13th centuries informs his work as commander-in-chief?
The detail reeks of the sycophancy of a White House insider who wants his boss to get credit for all of his prodigious talents and enviable qualities. Leaks in Washington are nothing new, and they have many purposes — to undercut rivals, to float preliminary proposals, to blow the whistle on potential wrongdoing. The Obama national-security leaks are overwhelmingly the product of vanity. They show off the president’s exquisitely thoughtful tough-mindedness and, above all, his killer instinct.
President Obama insists that “the notion that my White House would purposely release classified national-security information is offensive,” before in the next breath saying that “the writers of these articles have all stated unequivocally that [the leaks] did not come from this White House.” He must have been thinking of some other writers.
In its report about Obama’s “kill list,” the New York Times cited “three dozen of his current and former advisers.” Another Times story on cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear program relied on “officials involved in the program.” Both of the Times articles, as well as one in Newsweek on the “kill list,” describe meetings in the White House Situation Room in you-are-there detail. In one “tense” meeting described by the Times, the president asked whether the Stuxnet computer worm should be shut down after it escaped into the wider world, “according to members of the president’s national security team who were in the room.”
The dog that doesn’t bark in the articles is the outraged dissenter, the leaker who’s talking because he can’t bear to be associated with a government that assassinates people from on high or launches cyberwarfare against another sovereign country. When the New York Times revealed the Bush administration’s National Security Agency spying program back in 2005, it talked to officials who were concerned “about the operation’s legality and oversight.” The officials quoted in the Obama articles, in contrast, are practically bragging.
“From his first days in office,” a source identified as “a senior administration official” breathlessly told the Times, “he was deep into every step in slowing the Iranian program — the diplomacy, the sanctions, every major decision.” In other words, he’s one tough, cyberwarfare-waging son of gun. He could kill you with one hand while reading a Church father with the other.
In his new book on Obama’s national-security policy, Times reporter David Sanger recounts then–defense secretary Bob Gates’s going into national-security adviser Tom Donilon’s office in the wake of leaks about the bin Laden raid and suggesting a new communications strategy: “Shut the f*** up.” Gates wasn’t complaining about attacks on the administration from within — often the cause of tensions in other administrations — but about excessive self-glorification revealing sensitive operational details.
The political imperative behind the leaks is demonstrating President Obama’s toughness. But administrations also inevitably take on something of the character of the man leading them. No wonder that telling tales out of school about its own prowess is a failing of a team led by a supremely self-impressed man who has already written two memoirs. If he must boast about his cold-blooded exploits, he should save it for his third.