It happened again. Sensitive intelligence has been leaked to the news media to boost President Obama politically and to distract from the various scandals plaguing his administration.
The New York Times and McClatchy reported earlier this week that the Obama administration’s decision to close 22 embassies was occasioned by intelligence gathered from intercepted electronic communications between al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. A few days later, there were press reports that this was actually a conference call between Zawahiri and at least 19 other al-Qaeda representatives from around the world.
Because of these leaks, we can be sure that Zawahiri will no longer be communicating with his operatives by phone.
Aside from trying to counter an upsurge in criticism of the Obama administration’s mishandling of last September’s terrorist attacks on the Benghazi consulate, these leaks conveniently helped justify the controversial NSA surveillance programs leaked by former NSA technician Edward Snowden, which critics claim infringe on the privacy of Americans.
President Obama bears a lot of responsibility for the growing storm over the NSA programs that Snowden compromised. Because of Obama scandals such as the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS and the administration’s investigation of journalists, it is understandable that many in Congress and among the American public are unwilling to accept explanations by Obama and intelligence officials that NSA programs to collect and store cell-phone metadata and Internet data of Americans will not be abused by the government. On top of this, President Obama has done little to defend the NSA programs.
Unfortunately, leaks of intelligence to boost the president politically happen all too often. In June 2012, key operational details of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan were leaked to the news media. The leak was so serious that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reportedly blasted Obama’s national-security team and suggested a new strategic communications plan: “to shut the f*** up!”
And let’s not forget the extraordinary access granted by the CIA and the Pentagon to filmmakers Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow to make the movie Zero Dark Thirty, which was originally scheduled to be released just before last November’s presidential election. The moviemakers were provided with extraordinary access to the CIA as well as several previously classified details of the bin Laden raid, including the tightly held identity of the Seal Team 6 member who helped plan the mission.
In May 2012, Obama officials leaked to the Associated Press operational details of a new underwear-bombing plot by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. intelligence reportedly was running a double agent who obtained intelligence on this plot, but this mission was cut short because of the leak. House Intelligence chairman Mike Rogers indicated at the time that this leak appeared to have been designed to generate positive press for Mr. Obama to boost his reelection chances.
Also in May 2012, the New York Times ran an article about how President Obama has personally approved CIA drone attacks on al-Qaeda leaders from a secret “kill list.” This was clearly an orchestrated administration leak and was sourced to “three dozen of current and former [Obama] advisers.”
On June 1, 2012, New York Times Washington correspondent David Sanger ran an article about how President Obama sped up the Stuxnet program, an alleged cyber-warfare operation begun during the Bush administration and targeted against Iran’s uranium-enrichment facilities. Jane Harman, former ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said this leak was “very damaging” and had “devastating consequences.” Sanger’s story clearly originated from Obama insiders, since it cited White House Situation Room meetings and comments made in these meetings by the president.
Justice Department sources have told the news media that retired Marine general James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the target of an investigation into this leak. I’m skeptical that a man with Cartwright’s distinguished military career would be involved in a leak like this and that Obama political appointees played no role in a story that appeared designed to make the president look tough against Iran in an election year.
There is a long list of other ways this administration has mishandled intelligence matters. It read Miranda rights to the underwear bomber in December 2009. The FBI was also reading Miranda rights in 2009 to at least some terrorist detainees captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan. President Obama ended the CIA’s enhanced-interrogation program on his first day in office and a few months later released classified memos on enhanced-interrogation techniques used on terrorist suspects.
The story is still unfolding about how the Obama administration manipulated intelligence related to the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the Benghazi consulate. Among other things, Congress is seeking answers on how CIA-drafted talking points on this tragedy used by U.N. ambassador Susan Rice on several Sunday-morning talk shows on September 16, 2012, were altered. Rice used these talking points to claim that the violence against the Benghazi consulate that killed Ambassador Christopher Stephens and three other U.S. government employees was the result of a spontaneous protest and not a pre-planned terrorist attack.
There are intelligence leaks to the press in every administration. Such leaks often undermine American security by compromising intelligence sources and methods that took many years and enormous sums to develop. The difference with the Obama administration is its pattern of constantly leaking sensitive intelligence and intelligence methods to boost the president politically, as if such leaks will have no consequences and U.S. intelligence capabilities are limitless.
Obama officials have responded to charges by Republican congressmen that it has leaked intelligence to the press to make the president look tough by pointing out that his administration has prosecuted a record number of leak cases. But several of these cases were left over from the Bush administration, and others reportedly stemmed from improvements by the intelligence community in its system to track intelligence leaks to the press.
America’s intelligence is not limitless — it is a finite resource. Once key intelligence sources and methods are compromised, they are usually rendered useless and often cannot be replaced. If they can be replaced, new sources are usually less effective and more costly. Moreover, this series of leaks by U.S. officials will make our allies less willing to share sensitive intelligence with us because they do not want to see their information showing up in the New York Times.
The Obama administration is seriously damaging U.S. national security by treating highly classified intelligence as political capital it can spend, whenever it chooses, to boost the president’s popularity and the perception that he is a strong commander-in-chief. We need immediate bipartisan pressure on the president from Congress to force him to halt self-serving intelligence leaks and to fire and prosecute any administration officials who have been involved in them.
— Fred Fleitz served for 25 years in U.S. national-security positions with the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is currently chief analyst with the Langley Intelligence Group Network.