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White House/Pete Souza
Imagine if The Post broke a story about the biggest scandal of the Obama-era — and Washington responded with a collective yawn?
That’s precisely what happened recently when The Post reported on its front page that senior Obama administration officials were being investigated by the FBI and Justice Department for the leak last summer that the president had personally ordered cyberattacks on the Iranian nuclear program using a computer virus developed with Israel called Stuxnet.
The Post quotes a source who says that FBI agents and prosecutors are pursuing “everybody — at pretty high levels.” The paper further reports that investigators “have conducted extensive analysis of the e-mail accounts and phone records of current and former government officials” and that some have been confronted “with evidence of contact with journalists.”
This is big. And former senior government lawyers I spoke with recently explained why it could get a whole lot bigger:
The leaks clearly came from someone in the president’s inner circle. As The Post explains, “Knowledge of the virus was likely to have been highly compartmentalized and limited to a small set of Americans and Israelis.” Moreover, whoever leaked the information was present when the president discussed this covert action program in the Situation Room. There is a tiny universe of individuals who could have shared the details of President Obama’s personal deliberations on the covert program with the press.
This means there are essentially two possibilities for how the information got out.
Possibility No. 1: A senior administration or White House official disclosed the information to the press without the president’s personal approval.
That would be a potential crime and certainly a violation of the official’s oath of office — and in the case of a White House official, a violation of their contractual commitment to the Executive Office of the President. As one former senior Justice Department official told me, “It would be grounds for firing and likely prosecution, and it would definitely call into question the competency and security of the president’s supervision of his White House staff.”
Possibility No. 2: The president personally authorized a senior official to disclose classified and sensitive national security information regarding ongoing intelligence or counterterrorism operations.
This is potentially an even bigger scandal. Since the president has ultimate declassification authority, this would mean no crime was likely committed. But it is hard to imagine a credible argument that such a disclosure was made to advance the national security interests of the United States.
Quite the opposite, the Stuxnet leak was incredibly damaging. It exposed intelligence sources and methods, including the top secret codename for the program (“Olympic Games”). And it exposed the involvement of a U.S. ally, Israel. At one point in the New York Times story, a source says the Israelis were responsible for an error in the code who allowed it to replicate itself all around the world. The Times directly quotes one of the president’s briefers telling him “We think there was a modification done by the Israelis,” adding that “Mr. Obama, according to officials in the room, asked a series of questions, fearful that the code could do damage outside the plant. The answers came back in hedged terms. Mr. Biden fumed. ‘It’s got to be the Israelis,’ he said. ‘They went too far’” (emphasis added).
So a person who was “in the room” when the president and vice president were briefed publicly confirmed Israeli involvement in a covert action against Iran. The damage this did — both to the operation and the trust between our two countries — is incalculable.
There are no credible national security grounds for such a disclosure. The only person whose interests could possibly be served by such a disclosure was Obama. The leak appeared six months before the president stood for reelection and was clearly intended to make Obama appear strong on foreign policy and counterterrorism. (One anonymous senior official is quoted by the Times as saying “From his first days in office, he was deep into every step in slowing the Iranian program — the diplomacy, the sanctions, every major decision.”)
If the president authorized the disclosure of national security secrets that exposed a covert action and undermined a U.S. ally in an effort to gain a political advantage in his reelection campaign, that would be a scandal of gigantic proportions. As one former top Justice Department official told me “if done for political gain, rather than for a bona fide purpose advancing the public interests of the United States, it could be grounds for impeachment.”
In other words, at best ObamaLeaks may be a crime; at worst, they could be an impeachable offense. So the question is: What are those senior Obama administration officials telling investigators when confronted “with evidence of contact with journalists”? Were the leaks unauthorized? Or are they defending their disclosures by invoking the president’s personal authority to declassify national security information without formal process?
If the former, then we could see senior Obama administration officials put on trial. If the latter, then it is the president who should be on trial — in the chamber of the United States Senate.
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