“In matters of national security, the best politics is no politics” — former Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson.
Sorry, Senator. That’s honorable, but it’s apparently not how things work anymore. Here in Israel, we are long-used to the political and intelligence communities leaking like pipes in public housing. Individuals sworn to protect the nation’s secrets frequently divulge selected classified information with motivations sometimes high-minded and sometimes petty.
By contrast, U.S. government officials have generally followed Jackson’s dictum and maintained a pretty good record of keeping their mouths shut, even when the revelation of national security secrets might be a potent political weapon.
That is, until now. The Obama administration is now engaging in a series of politically weaponized security compromises audacious enough to shock even jaded Israelis.
The shift began with the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a result of good intelligence work by two administrations and terrific execution by U.S. SEAL commandos. But seeing an opportunity for political gain, the White House was not content with an announcement of success.
Instead, reveling in the mission, the White House revealed a boatload of self-aggrandizing secret information about the raid. It gave film crews and press unprecedented access, including to the Situation Room, the (formerly) top-secret and most secure part of the White House, where cameras had never before been allowed. The media coverage painted President Barack Obama as a decisive military leader, but at a resulting cost of revealing long-secret military practises, the makeup of the formerly secret SEAL Team 6, and the identities of informants whose lives are now in jeopardy as a result.
In fact, Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor outed as a key informant by the Obama PR machine, has been now convicted of treason against his country and sentenced to 33 years’ hard labor. Can we blame any intelligence asset who sees this “reward” for working with America and gets cold feet as a result? How many potential informants did we sacrifice on the altar of Obama’s superhero image?
Next came disclosure of a covert operation which foiled a plot to blow up an airliner, complete with information sufficient for al-Qaida to identify the double agent involved and the information and personnel that had been compromised. The administration helpfully added other details of the successful terror infiltration and cooperation with Saudi and Yemeni intelligence. The al-Qaida thank-you note is probably on its way.
In recent weeks, the New York Times, so frequently the mouthpiece of the Obama administration, exposed select secret information, all of which, coincidentally, of course, shows the president as one tough-on-terror tactician.
First came the “kill list” story, in which the Times reported that Obama personally decided which of America’s Most Wanted in Pakistan would be targeted for drone assassination. Then came stories crediting Obama’s alleged role in orchestrating cyberattacks against Iran, including the Stuxnet virus.
The administration neither protested the leaks, nor pleaded with journalists not to publish them, nor displayed any urgency at stopping them. Yet, now facing political backlash for revealing sensitive information, Obama this week said he was shocked — shocked! — and offended at the suggestion that his administration was behind these leaks.
An “investigation” has now been ordered. It will be conducted by attorneys working under Obama’s own close friend, Attorney-General Eric Holder, who himself has a sterling record of stonewalling congressional requests for inconvenient information.
However, the image-by-leak strategy is likely to doubly backfire. First, whose mind will be changed by the substance of these leaks? After three years in office, people know who Obama is. They know that foreign policy is somewhat of a nuisance for him, and that he’d sooner bow to the Saudi king than stand up to Iran or Russia. They know that he is squeamish about U.S. military engagements, and that he’d rather “lead from behind.” Those images weren’t formed overnight, and won’t change simply because of some flagrantly self-serving leaks.
President Jimmy Carter’s experience is instructive. Having already embarked on reckless arms reductions, canceling the B-1 bomber and seeming helpless with Americans held hostage in Iran, he needed to toughen his image. So, 10 weeks before the 1980 election, his administration publicly announced the highly classified successful development of revolutionary Stealth technology. The unilateral declassification caused an uproar, but gave Carter no image boost. It was just more “Mush from the Wimp”, as a Boston Globe headline once put it.
Obama, too, will soon learn: Once formed, an image of weakness is not easily overcome.
Second, Americans of all stripes take national security seriously. Even prominent Democrats are irate: Senator Dianne Feinstein complained that the “avalanche” of leaks is compromising America’s security and intelligence capabilities. Voters understand that secure information is a national asset, not a campaign asset.
This administration treats classified information as if it’s part of Obama’s own campaign war chest, to be spent whenever most politically advantageous. That un-serious attitude toward national security will not sit well with voters. Scoop Jackson’s admonition was not just good policy; it was good politics.
When America debated the “surge” in Iraq, John McCain took a huge political risk by being its strongest advocate. Asked if this was destroying his hopes of becoming president, he replied: “I’d rather lose an election than lose a war.” Can this leak-happy administration say the same thing?
Abraham Katsman is an American attorney and political commentator living in Jerusalem. He serves as counsel to Republicans Abroad Israel.