Though the press largely dropped the story weeks ago, no controversy has the potential to do as much long-term damage to the Obama presidency as the White House leaks investigation. That’s why Mitt Romney’s ringing denunciation of the administration’s fast and loose approach to classified information in his address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars yesterday had to scare the administration silly. In response, they not only prompted Senator Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to try to walk back her accusation that the White House was the source of the leaks about cyber warfare, targeted assassinations of terrorists, Iran and other national security topics that Romney cited in his speech. They also sent out campaign honcho David Axelrod to make the rounds of the morning news shows today to reassure the American people that President Obama played no role in the flow of secrets to the front page of the New York Times and other media outlets friendly to the president.
But Axelrod’s assurances ring false. Obama’s problem here is that the White House’s fingerprints were all over these stories. It’s not just that secrets were spilled, but that they were leaked in a manner intended to make the president look like he was actively involved in the details of national security matters. The Times stories in particular — served up as they were to fill the front page of a number of Sunday editions of the paper — were more than background material about the nuts and bolts of how the nation is pursuing terrorists and attempting to stop Iran’s nuclear program but crafted so as to make the president look good. Moreover, they were sourced in such a way as to make it obvious it came from the White House. That is why Romney’s call for a special prosecutor had to make the president and his senior advisers squirm.
Feinstein’s backtracking was so unconvincing, especially after her frank admission on Monday that the White House was the obvious culprit. She may regret that her remarks “are being used to impugn President Obama or his commitment to protecting national security secrets,” but that was the obvious implication of the facts as she originally laid them out.
The problem here is not merely a bad news cycle in which Romney got the better of the president. The leaks investigation is the sort of thing that can and will haunt the president and his senior staff long after the election. The current investigations being conducted by two prosecutors appointed by President Obama have the potential to drag a second term — if he is lucky enough to have one — down in scandal. That should make their anxiety about the outcome in November even greater. Should, as Romney rightly suggests, a special prosecutor be appointed, there’s little doubt that some of Obama’s senior staffers are going to spend the next few years defending their reputations in a scandal that will tarnish the president’s historic legacy. Re-electing the president and keeping Attorney General Eric Holder in office so as to keep the Justice Department from pursuing these charges too zealously is their only hope.