By opening an investigation into the leaks of classified information, the Obama White House appears to be entering the kind of perilous Fill-In-The-Blank-Gate terrain that has eventually engulfed most administrations in the modern era.
The pattern: an initial investigation launched to relieve mounting political pressure snowballs into a much larger scandal, leaving a trail of broken careers in its wake.
And the beginnings of that pattern are in place: Attorney General Eric Holder Friday appointed two federal prosecutors to oversee multiple FBI investigations into leaks involving stories in recently published books and articles in the New York Times, AP, and Newsweek. The move deflected, but didn't end, a rising, bipartisan tide of Congressional criticism of the leaks. Republican senators Tuesday called for a vote in Congress to recommend that an independent counsel look into national security secrets that have appeared in the media.
“It’s going to be trouble, “ says Steve Clemons, an influential policy analyst who has close ties to the administration. “It’s going to be like the search for who leaked Valerie Plame’s name. If the truth does come out, I suspect it will be a major player. Of course the White House is very nervous.”
Those major players are some of the most powerful figures in Obama’s Washington.
The scandal has the potential to drag in a cadre of senior administration officials, both former and current, who have extensive contacts with the press.
The short list could include Leon Panetta, Ben Rhodes, Tom Donilon, Gen. David Petraeus, John Brennan, Jim Jones, and General Doug Lute, among other heavy hitters.
All of them have been prominently featured in stories of the Obama administration’s foreign policy exploits, including the New York Times “Kill List” story as well as David Sanger’s narrative about Stuxnet, the secret cyber-war program against Iran.
“Depending on how these investigations go, they can end up being very time consuming and debilitating for the White House and for other senior officials," said Matthew Waxman, a former Bush administration official who currently co-chairs Columbia University Law School's national security program. "These can be extremely time consuming for senior staff around them, and they can amount to a significant distraction."
The investigation is just getting underway this week, according to U.S. officials, who say it's too early to speculate on the people responsible for the classified leaks.
Privately, however, the White House puts the blame for the classified leaks on the scores of bureaucrats within the sprawling national security apparatus who have access to the info.
It’s a charge its critics dispute.
“If you read articles about the leaks, they’re quoting anonymous high-level administration officials,” says Kathleen McClellan of the Government Accountability Project. “To me, to say that the leaks aren’t coming from the administration defies credulity.”
Until Sanger’s book, the White House’s most extensive cooperation on a national security tome had gone to Bob Woodward for his best selling Obama’s Wars.
(Newsweek’s Dan Klaidman also released a book this month that involved White House cooperation.)
Although Woodward’s account revealed the names and details of top secret programs—and cost former National Security Advisor General Jim Jones his job—no investigations were launched, or at least publically acknowledged.
In Sanger’s book, Conceal and Confront, a focus of the FBI investigation, the author thanks Obama’s national security press team by name for “setting up interviews with all levels of the White House staff.”
Many of these interviews were monitored by press aides, while other officially approved interviews were conducted at the CIA and State Department, according to the acknowledgements.
Sanger also notes “several [sources] would be horrified or fired if I name them here.”
A few pages later, he writes: “Almost every senior member of the president’s national security team was generous enough to sit down and talk through their experiences, some more than once. Most insisted on speaking on background…Their level of candor varied.”
On the reporting about Olympic Games—the code name given to the secret cyber war program against Iran—Sanger writes that he gave “complete anonymity” to those American and foreign sources who discussed “sensitive intelligence matters” with him.
The White House has strongly denied leaking any classified information in general, or providing classified information to Sanger. The administration has been at particular pains to reject the suggestion that they are doing it for political gain.
On Friday, a few hours before Holder’s announcement, President Obama said he would aggressively pursue the leaks, calling the notion that he and his top aides would be involved “offensive,” and suggesting the leaks might be “criminal” acts.
White House officials are also quick to make a distinction between providing details of sensitive meetings that have been featured in the accounts—like when Obama was told by during a 2010 briefing that elements of the U.S. intelligence community might have gone rogue—versus releasing actual classified information.
(“We think there was a modification done by the Israelis,” Sanger quotes a source at meeting with President Obama attended by Panetta and other top advisors. “And we don’t know if we were part of that activity.”)
The White House claims that this distinction has been conflated by the likes of Senator Lindsey Graham, Rep. Peter King and Senator John McCain to score political points.
Republicans, however, contend that the leaks have been wielded for mostly political purposes to make Obama look like “a tough guy,” as McCain put it.
It’s a point that the president’s critics on the left and transparency advocates agree with, arguing that Obama’s White House has selectively leaked secret information to glorify his reign as Commander-in-Chief.
The White House's bind was tightened by its own unprecedented crackdown on unauthorized leakers.
The administration has prosecuted six cases under the 1917 Espionage Act, two thirds of all of the cases in history. They’re also actively pursuing alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning—having kept him in solitary confinement awaiting a trial where he faces life in prison, while President Obama already said publicly that “he broke the law." The Department of Justice is reportedly seeking a secret indictment against Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks. (Sanger’s book relies extensively on the documents obtained by Assange’s Wikileaks and allegedly leaked by Manning.)
“The administration talks about transparency, but the message is, if you speak out of turn you will be hammered and we will use the criminal justice system to do it,” says Kathleen McClellan. “These prosecutions are incredibly selective. We see leaks of classified information in the paper every day, yet the only people being prosecuted are whistleblowers.”
The saga of the leaks has its origins in the Bin Laden raid. Following the operation in May 2011, a parade of administration officials revealed details of the killing to the press, angering many in the intelligence and Special Forces community.
Obama’s political enemies jumped on the disclosures immediately as way to undercut what appeared to be the president’s most significant victory in the war against Al Qaeda.
The administration then decided to roll out the red carpet for two Hollywood filmmakers, who were given privileged access to details of the raid for the purposes of making a picture, originally scheduled to be released a month before the election.
The transcripts of these meetings, taken with the White House’s blessing, were recently disclosed by Judicial Watch. The documents included a reference to the White House’s cooperation, though no apparent classified leaks.
On the anniversary of Bin Laden's death, the White House seized the opportunity to maximize political gain, rolling out new details of the raid. The grandstanding provided another opportunity for its critics to stoke the leak debate.
Then last month, a seemingly unauthorized leak enraged the White House—and provided further ammo for its critics.
The news of an interrupted Al Qaeda bomb plot—first reported by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Adam Goldman of the AP—prompted the White House and the CIA to ask the wire to withhold the story.
The AP complied with the request until the next week, finally publishing the story over White House objections. The AP story was picked up by most major outlets, including the Times, adding new details, including the nationality of the double agent. White House insiders said that leak pushed James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, over the edge—furious at both the media and the source or sources of the leaks.
Politically, the consequence of the investigation might mean kicking the issue into a second term, as these investigations can drag on for six months or more, according to former Justice Department officials and legal experts. And by resisting the appointment of a special prosecutor, the White House is keeping an eye to President Bill Clinton's pursuit by special prosecutor Ken Starr, as well as doubling down on its claims of innocence.
“I imagine that the White House does not admit the existence of a conflict of interest that would justify appointment of a special prosecutor,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists “There would be a potential conflict only if the White House had indeed orchestrated the leaks — a scenario that it has already denied.”
(The Department of Justice declined to say when the FBI started its investigations, and did not respond to the question of whether the White House asked Holder to investigate.)
Another consequence of the investigations, however, is that it puts the Obama administration on a collision course with some of the most powerful media outlets in the country.
According to former Department of Justice officials, a swift resolution to the investigation would only be likely if the Department of Justice goes after the journalists involved, pressuring them to flip on their sources. Holder said the DOJ wouldn’t hesitate to apply such pressure. Senator Dianne Feinstein also said today she wanted a quick resolution, after having given her support to the investigation.
There is, to be sure, the possibility that the investigations fizzle out, as leak cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute. “Some of them have gone on interminably. Most of them have not discovered the actual leakers or leakers,” said Daniel Metcalfe, a former DOJ official. “It's just a matter of time before everyone gives up.” Metcalfe added that the two prosecutors “are exceptionally capable guys, but such leaks could be practically impossible to pin down.”
Republican sources on Capitol Hill, however, said it’s an issue that they hope to keep hammering.
“If these disclosures are as bad as the president and many senators on both sides of the aisle believe then they need the independence and focus that will come with a special counsel,” said a senior GOP source. “These leaks are more damaging than the Valerie Plame matter, and a special counsel was appointed in that case.”