Commentary Magazine


Topic: classified leaks

Al-Qaeda’s Willing Idiots in the Media

In the last week as the debate over intervention in Syria continued, some on the right have taken to referring to the prospect as President Obama’s war for al-Qaeda. Senator Ted Cruz went further, claiming that the president was transforming the U.S. Armed Forces into al-Qaeda’s Air Force. This is utterly irresponsible, not only because it panders to conspiracy theories but also because it distorts the discussion about the opposition to the Assad regime in an effort to sweep away concerns about giving the butcher of Damascus impunity to commit further atrocities. But those eager to focus on those who are actually aiding al-Qaeda—as opposed to merely smearing their political opponents—have a better target for their ire than the president. Today’s Washington Post contains an article based on leaks of classified information by Edward Snowden that can best be described as a field guide for terrorists seeking to combat U.S. drones.

The piece, which is based on a “top-secret report” on the subject titled “Threats to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” details vulnerabilities of drones and discusses the concerted efforts, including the creation of cells of engineers, to “shoot down, jam and remotely hijack” U.S. aircraft. This is fascinating stuff, but though the Post claims many details about drone capabilities are already in the public domain and that it held back some of the material Snowden has illegally leaked, it nevertheless constitutes a major breach of security. Though Snowden and his friends at the Post and elsewhere may think they are bolstering liberty with these disclosures, that is a delusion. As with much of what Snowden and his journalist collaborators have published since he fled the country with a computer full of secrets about the war on al-Qaeda, it is hard to know how much these revelations help the terrorists. Whatever the exact extent of damage to America’s counter-terrorist campaign, there’s little doubt it is a favor to al-Qaeda and hurts the United States. Publishing these kind of operational details about drones does nothing to advance the debate about whether the government should use them against terrorists. But it does raise serious questions about the motives of publications that have come to believe that exposing any details—even those that are directly related to shooting down U.S. aircraft—is fair game for the press.

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In the last week as the debate over intervention in Syria continued, some on the right have taken to referring to the prospect as President Obama’s war for al-Qaeda. Senator Ted Cruz went further, claiming that the president was transforming the U.S. Armed Forces into al-Qaeda’s Air Force. This is utterly irresponsible, not only because it panders to conspiracy theories but also because it distorts the discussion about the opposition to the Assad regime in an effort to sweep away concerns about giving the butcher of Damascus impunity to commit further atrocities. But those eager to focus on those who are actually aiding al-Qaeda—as opposed to merely smearing their political opponents—have a better target for their ire than the president. Today’s Washington Post contains an article based on leaks of classified information by Edward Snowden that can best be described as a field guide for terrorists seeking to combat U.S. drones.

The piece, which is based on a “top-secret report” on the subject titled “Threats to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” details vulnerabilities of drones and discusses the concerted efforts, including the creation of cells of engineers, to “shoot down, jam and remotely hijack” U.S. aircraft. This is fascinating stuff, but though the Post claims many details about drone capabilities are already in the public domain and that it held back some of the material Snowden has illegally leaked, it nevertheless constitutes a major breach of security. Though Snowden and his friends at the Post and elsewhere may think they are bolstering liberty with these disclosures, that is a delusion. As with much of what Snowden and his journalist collaborators have published since he fled the country with a computer full of secrets about the war on al-Qaeda, it is hard to know how much these revelations help the terrorists. Whatever the exact extent of damage to America’s counter-terrorist campaign, there’s little doubt it is a favor to al-Qaeda and hurts the United States. Publishing these kind of operational details about drones does nothing to advance the debate about whether the government should use them against terrorists. But it does raise serious questions about the motives of publications that have come to believe that exposing any details—even those that are directly related to shooting down U.S. aircraft—is fair game for the press.

It is the duty of the free press in our republic to hold the government accountable and to expose its doings to the light whenever possible. But there is a difference between press freedom and stripping the nation of its ability to defend itself. Whatever you may think about the Obama administration’s use of drones, they are part of an active American campaign to attack terrorists who are at war with the United States. Publishing material that directly relates to the ability of terrorists to block this campaign crosses the line that should exist between covering the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus and actively seeking to cripple their operations.

We live in an era in which groups like WikiLeaks and figures such as Snowden have taken upon themselves the job of waging war on the entire concept of American security. Their frame of reference is one that denies any need for secrecy even when it concerns the safety of active-service personnel or attacks against terrorist targets. You don’t need to support the idea of war in Syria or even approve of President Obama’s policies to understand this is a point of view that is incompatible with the nation’s ability to defend itself.

That major newspapers have in recent years adopted a stance toward the publication of classified material that is in many respects indistinguishable from that of WikiLeaks is shocking. Reports on drone vulnerabilities are, after all, not the moral equivalent of the Pentagon Papers—the landmark case about publication of classified reports—which was a historical document outlining American misadventures in Vietnam and labeled as classified only to spare the government embarrassment.

The Post story on drones is just the latest example of a trend in which it and other major publication such as the New York Times have taken it upon themselves to be the arbiter of what the public may know about security stories. While no one should treat everything labeled as “secret” by the Pentagon or the CIA as sacrosanct, you don’t need a security clearance to understand that a public discussion of how to shoot down or jam a drone aimed at al-Qaeda has little to do with democracy and everything to do with undermining the government’s ability to defend the American people.

Past generations of journalists understood that loyalty to their country sometimes had to supersede their innate desire to get scoops. If they don’t understand the difference between a free press and being the willing idiots of al-Qaeda, it’s time for the Post, the Times, and other papers to rethink their approach to these issues and to step back from their cooperation with Snowden.

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More Dangerous Administration Leaks

There is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about the content of the story published today by the New York Times about Israeli attacks on missile sites in Syria. The fact that Israel has launched air strikes on targets in Syria containing weapons that could be used to strike the Jewish state, such as the Russian-made cruise missiles said to be in a warehouse that was hit in Latakia earlier this month, is not a big secret. That some of those weapons might have survived Israeli attacks and that its air force is certain to keep at it until it is sure they are destroyed rather than passed into the hands of Hezbollah seems logical. But the fact that this report was based on detailed classified information that was leaked by people the Times identifies as “American intelligence analysts” and U.S. government “officials” is both shocking and surprising.

The leak from what must be senior officials raises serious questions that beg for answers especially at a time when the administration has been on a jihad against leakers. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this story is either the work of anti-Israel figures working in the Pentagon or has been orchestrated by the administration in order to deter Israel from continuing its efforts to prevent weapon transfers to terrorists and, as Haaretz speculated today, to, in effect, warn the Syrians and let them prepare in advance for subsequent strikes. Either way, this has made an already dangerous situation even more troubling.

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There is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about the content of the story published today by the New York Times about Israeli attacks on missile sites in Syria. The fact that Israel has launched air strikes on targets in Syria containing weapons that could be used to strike the Jewish state, such as the Russian-made cruise missiles said to be in a warehouse that was hit in Latakia earlier this month, is not a big secret. That some of those weapons might have survived Israeli attacks and that its air force is certain to keep at it until it is sure they are destroyed rather than passed into the hands of Hezbollah seems logical. But the fact that this report was based on detailed classified information that was leaked by people the Times identifies as “American intelligence analysts” and U.S. government “officials” is both shocking and surprising.

The leak from what must be senior officials raises serious questions that beg for answers especially at a time when the administration has been on a jihad against leakers. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this story is either the work of anti-Israel figures working in the Pentagon or has been orchestrated by the administration in order to deter Israel from continuing its efforts to prevent weapon transfers to terrorists and, as Haaretz speculated today, to, in effect, warn the Syrians and let them prepare in advance for subsequent strikes. Either way, this has made an already dangerous situation even more troubling.

This is not the first time official American sources were used by the Times to report on Israeli efforts to deal with the chaos in Syria. Nevertheless, the administration seemed to condone Israel’s actions. Indeed, it has appeared at times as if Washington was quite happy to let the Israel Defense Forces do its dirty work for it as the U.S. preferred to keep “leading from behind” while others dealt with the mess that American indifference helped create.

Israel has no clear vested interest in either side winning the Syrian civil war. The Assad regime kept the cease-fire with Israel but if it survives, as it looks as if it will, it will be even more indebted to its Iranian allies. From the frame of reference of the Jewish state, there’s not much to choose from between a dangerous dictator aligned with Iran and Hezbollah and an alliance of rebels that includes al-Qaeda elements. But it does have a clear interest in preventing Russian weapons from being transferred to the Hezbollah mercenaries who are winning the war for Assad.

If, as might reasonably be inferred from this latest Times story, the Obama administration has shifted from a position of tacit support for Israeli efforts to keep Russian weapons away from Hezbollah to one of active opposition to Israeli strikes, then it is worth asking why they’ve changed their minds.

One possible motive for this decision is a desire to avoid any sort of confrontation involving the Russians. Given the insulting and provocative way Russia has been treating the United States lately—of which the Edward Snowden affair is just the latest—an American effort to spare Vladimir Putin’s feelings at a time when his policy seems aimed at prolonging the war in Syria is, to say the least, curious.

It would be just as curious if a U.S. shift against Israel on this issue were the result of Secretary of State John Kerry’s concerns about upsetting the peace negotiations with the Palestinians that he has convened. One would think assuring the Israelis that America has their back on security issues would be the way to help persuade the Netanyahu government to be more accommodating in the talks. But perhaps the administration thinks any act of self-defense on Israel’s part while the Palestinian Authority is trying to think of an excuse to weasel out of the negotiations would be unhelpful.

Nor does it make much sense to think that Israel’s surgical strikes will have any real impact on the outcome of the fighting in Syria, assuming that the U.S. has actually arrived at a coherent position on what it wants to happen there.

But no matter the reason for the leaking, it needs to be understood that this sort of behavior on the part of the United States is nothing short of outrageous. If the administration is serious about supporting Israeli security, this is not the time to playing games on the question of Russian missiles falling into the hands of terrorists. Israel has every right to keep that from happening and will be justified in continuing air strikes or any other measure that might accomplish this goal. Appeasing Russia in this matter won’t give Obama the “reset” of relations with Moscow he’s always wanted. American efforts to deter or prevent it from acting aren’t merely unhelpful; they are part of a dangerous game that could, if Israel is unable to stop the transfers, result in a situation that could cost both Israeli and American lives.

Lastly, we have a right to ask why an administration that is prepared to spy on the press in order to close up classified leaks it doesn’t like still appears to be a sieve when it comes to leaks that might serve the president’s policy preferences. Hypocrisy isn’t strong enough a word to describe such a dangerous and irresponsible course of action.

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