The White House Leaks: Americans Need Some Answers

by Mario Loyola

The president’s Friday press conference contained this precious gem: “The idea that my White House would purposely release national-security information is offensive.” Aye, Mr. President, ’ tis offensive. That’s why we’d like you to stop doing it.

As Senator John McCain pointed out, the president did not actually deny authorizing the leaks in question. That is the key issue: If the leaks were not authorized, they must be prosecuted. And if they are not prosecuted, we must assume they were authorized.

From the start, this White House has shown a dangerous tendency to leak classified information in order to make the president look effective on national security. The pattern has been so consistent and obvious that the president is now taking fire from every part of the political spectrum, even Democratic allies in Congress. In some cases, the leaks have compromised hot leads and ongoing operations, with potentially devastating national-security consequences.

Over at Foreign Policy, Uri Friedman has gotten a start on cataloging the administration’s major leaks. The list is not exhaustive: It doesn’t include the underwear bomber leak, which was among the worst, nor any of several leaks apparently designed to frustrate possible Israeli strikes on Iran. But the list is lengthy, and shows an interesting pattern. Most of the leaks are not being prosecuted. And that is almost certainly because they were authorized at the highest levels of the administration.

#more#It’s important to distinguish between authorized and unauthorized leaks. There is nothing illegal about releasing classified information if you are duly authorized to do it. It is the unauthorized release of classified information that is illegal. The classifying authority can always release information that it classified in the first place, and in our system the ultimate classifying authority is the president. So to the extent the leaks were authorized by the president, nothing illegal has happened.

Senator McCain called it “unacceptable” for the administration to leak classified information “for political purposes.” Well, that’s not necessarily true. For example, leaking classified information that tends to refute a false claim by the government of Iran may be worth the downside risks to national security. If refuting the Iranian claim tends to increase domestic political support for a particular U.S. policy, then classified information has been released “for political purposes.” But that in and of itself is not enough to make it wrong. In the Iran hypothetical, releasing national-security secrets might be justified for national-security purposes, even if those purposes are also political.

What is totally unacceptable — and in this sense, Senator McCain is right — is for the administration to compromise national-security secrets in order to bolster the president’s own political fortunes. That may not be illegal. But it is rank political corruption: a shameful betrayal of the public trust and of the president’s duty to protect the American people.

Either senior administration officials will have to be prosecuted, or the president himself must accept responsibility for the leaks, and let the American people decide if he can still be trusted to guard the nation’s secrets.   

— Mario Loyola is former counsel for foreign and defense policy to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.

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