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Accusations, Investigation Follow Intelligence Leaks

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive.


That's President Obama at a news conference on Friday denying that his administration authorized a series of recent leaks about sensitive intelligence matters. Several news organizations, including The New York Times, have written that the president personally oversees and authorizes drone strikes on suspected terrorists. Other stories have suggested the White House ordered the development of the so-called Stuxnet virus that temporarily disabled Iran's nuclear program.

Some Senate Republicans have accused the White House of deliberately leaking those stories in a bid to boost the president's national security credentials. The Justice Department has now launched an investigation to determine the source of those leaks.

James Fallows of The Atlantic joins me now, as he does most Saturdays, for a look behind the headlines.

And, Jim, let's start with the Justice Department. No other administration in U.S. history has pursued leaks quite like this one. This new investigation would make it the seventh time that the White House has gone after people who've disclosed classified information. First of all, is it clear we are talking about leaks?

JAMES FALLOWS: I think it's crucial to recognize what a gray zone this is and what a range of activities is covered by what we usually refer to as leaks. On the one hand, you had historically deliberate transmissions of information either from the administration itself, as was the case before the Iraq War with some of the WMD information or allegations about Iraq, or from dissidents, as was the case, say, with Daniel Ellsberg a generation ago in Vietnam or Bradley Manning now.

On the other extreme, you have what we think of as real reporting coups. You know, it was 40 years ago that Woodward and Bernstein were doing this about Watergate. And then you have a middle zone where it looks like real reportorial efforts were involved, also there were motives of either individuals or organizations to get information out. I think many of them we're talking about now are in that middle zone.

RAZ: Why do you think this is such a huge issue for the Obama White House?

FALLOWS: Of course, we don't really know, but some of the elements might be these. Number one, in his personal and political and other operations, Barack Obama is very much a no-drama Obama, lips closed, no leaking ship type of person. But probably, the main factor may be this: that we've reached a stage of national history and technological capability where the things a president can do in secret are a larger share of U.S. foreign policy than they've ever been before. Therefore, concerns about violations of secrecy, justified or not, may be even more important to whoever is in office.

RAZ: They may be able to do more things in secret, but much harder to keep secrets now.

FALLOWS: Exactly. And because a larger share of what the U.S. does around the world and, to be frank, a larger share of what a president has any direct control over is now this shadow land of secret war drone activities, double agents and all the rest. And therefore, this may be even higher on President Obama's list of annoyances and things to fight back against than for all of his predecessors.

RAZ: And certainly with these latest stories, it does appear as if somebody was trying to make him look good.

FALLOWS: I would say that is a possible and even probable, although not certain, assessment of what's gone on here. And if that is what happened, if political operatives in the administration were leaking this information to make President Obama seem all the more decisive than they are playing with fire because this will be politically attacked as it's already been by the Republicans. And it does undermine what is one of President Obama's main claims, which is his stewardship and responsibility of the great executive power he's been exercising. And by great, I mean sizable as opposed to excellent.

RAZ: Jim, do efforts to prosecute leakers or alleged leakers, do they usually lead anywhere?

FALLOWS: They usually do not because many of the first principles of American governance and of press freedom and of all these other things come to the fore. And all you have to do is think back to the Scooter Libby leaked case of a couple of years ago to see the disproportion between the huge investigative and judicial effort that was applied to that and the very modest result. So it's impossible for administrations to recognize this in real time, but the investigations almost never do any good.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can find his blog @jamesfallow.theatlantic.com. His new book is called "China Airborne." Jim, thanks so much.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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