Skip to main content

In this May 1, 2011 file image released by the White House and digitally altered by the source to diffuse the paper in front of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington.Handout

Kill lists for drone strikes personally ticked off by President Barack Obama, a terrorist bomb plot thwarted by a brave double agent, juicy details about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden – all leaked and now all fuelling a raging political brouhaha in this election year.

Presidents decry leaks, and Mr. Obama is no exception. "The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive," Mr. Obama claimed after the most recent leak revealed another supposedly secret cyber-attack on Iran.

Opponents weren't persuaded. "It's obvious on its face that this information came from individuals who are in the administration." said Sen. John McCain as the 'leaks' furor dominated the Sunday talk shows. "The president may not have done it himself, but the president certainly is responsible as commander in chief."

Skillful, willful leaking has long been part of the dark art of enhancing presidential prowess. And – especially with those secrets so closely held that only a vanishingly few people know them – the likelihood of accidental or inadvertent disclosure is tiny.

Critics accuse the president – or loyal aides close to him – of deliberately leaking to boost Mr. Obama's image as being even tougher, and more effective, at waging war on terrorists than his predecessor, George W. Bush. But those leaks risk the lives of agents in the field and make future and on-going covert operations more difficult.

Even as all sides claimed they only wanted to stop the leaks and haul the leakers before the courts, a partisan battle was under way. "The White House ... claimed that my criticism of the Administration's involvement in, and culpability for, leaks of sensitive and classified information is 'grossly irresponsible.' No, what is grossly irresponsible is U.S. officials divulging some of the most highly classified programs involving the most important national security priorities facing our nation today," said Sen. McCain, who lost to Mr. Obama in the 2008 presidential elections.

One revealing anecdote recently emerged about the bin Laden raid and high-level willingness to keeping secrets when political advantage is in play. According to then Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served in both the Bush and Obama administrations, those who watched the raid with the President agreed.

"In the Situation Room, we all agreed that we would not release any operational details from the effort to take out bin Laden. That all fell apart on Monday, the next day," Mr. Gates said. It has since been leaked that the following day, Mr. Gates confronted one of Mr. Obama's closest aides and suggested a new communications policy, consisting of "Shut the f–– up!"

In the current case, Mr. Obama's embattled Attorney General Eric Holder has named two Justice Department prosecutors to probe the leaks.

That, too, is coming under fire for being inadequate.

"Can you have the U.S. attorney assigned through the Attorney General to investigate something that is clearly going to be at the most senior levels of all of the executive branch – DOD (Department of Defense) and FBI, the attorney general's office and even the president. I mean, some of the leaks – and the public leaks– are self-described aides or people who were in the Situation Room. That's a pretty small but pretty important group of people," said Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Sen. McCain was blunter. "Mr. Holder's credibility with Congress is – there is none," he said, adding that when a CIA agent Valerie Plame was outed during the Bush administration, a special independent counsel was appointed to investigate and – eventually – a top aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney went to prison.

The current leaks about kill lists for drone strikes and cyber warfare and double-agents deep inside al-Qaeda's bomb-making cell in Yemen constitute the "most egregious breach of intelligence in anybody's memory, (and) certainly requires a special counsel who is completely independent," he said.

Interact with The Globe