Commentary Magazine


Topic: leaks

NY Times Suddenly Concerned About Leaks

It’s nice to see the New York Times—one of the publications that has served as a megaphone for Edward Snowden—is concerned about the damage that leaks can do to national security. At least when they come from other publications.

The Times this morning featured a front-page article reporting: “Since news reports in early August revealed that the United States intercepted messages between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of Al Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, discussing an imminent terrorist attack, analysts have detected a sharp drop in the terrorists’ use of a major communications channel that the authorities were monitoring. Since August, senior American officials have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives.”

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It’s nice to see the New York Times—one of the publications that has served as a megaphone for Edward Snowden—is concerned about the damage that leaks can do to national security. At least when they come from other publications.

The Times this morning featured a front-page article reporting: “Since news reports in early August revealed that the United States intercepted messages between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of Al Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, discussing an imminent terrorist attack, analysts have detected a sharp drop in the terrorists’ use of a major communications channel that the authorities were monitoring. Since August, senior American officials have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives.”

The “news report” in question, naming Zawahiri and Wuhayshi, appeared in McClatchy newspapers on Aug. 4. Two days earlier the Times itself had reported on the foiled terror plot, a victory which it attributed to the American interception of “electronic communications … among senior operatives of Al Qaeda.” The Times now reveals that it too knew the identity of the operatives in question but chose to withhold them on security grounds at the request of senior U.S. officials, at least until McClatchy came forth with its own, more specific revelations.

The Times would now have you believe that all of the resulting damage was due to the McClatchy leak, not to the Times leak, and moreover that the damage incurred was considerably more substantial than that caused by Snowden—whose latest revelations concerning NSA mining of metadata appeared on the Times front page as recently as Sunday. No wonder McClatchy’s Washington bureau chief finds the Times article an “odd” one.

There is certainly room to debate whether the Times, too, has caused damage to national security with its leaks not only of the Zawahiri-Wuhayshi intercepts but also of Snowden’s revelations more generally. As the Times’s own story today concedes: “Shortly after Mr. Snowden leaked documents about the secret N.S.A. surveillance programs, chat rooms and Web sites used by jihadis and prospective recruits advised users how to avoid N.S.A. detection, from telling them to avoid using Skype to recommending specific online software programs like MS2 to keep spies from tracking their computers’ physical locations.”

The article also quotes anonymously some “senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials” who say “that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the impact of the messages between the Qaeda leaders from Mr. Snowden’s overall disclosures, and that the decline [in intercepts] is more likely a combination of the two.”

It is pretty rich of the Times, then, to be piling blame on a rival news organization when it has done as much as any media outlet to publish government secrets that can be of use to our enemies.

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Veteran Intelligence Pros for Syria’s Assad

Earlier this month, a group of former intelligence analysts and operatives who call themselves the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a statement regarding Syria. It began:

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed …

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Earlier this month, a group of former intelligence analysts and operatives who call themselves the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a statement regarding Syria. It began:

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed …

Their statement continues to push the bizarre conspiracy theory that Israel had a part in the chemical attacks. Let’s put aside how poorly this theory reflects on the men and women of the U.S. intelligence community, who count these conspiracy-mongers among their distinguished alumni, and instead focus on the “our former co-workers are telling us” portion. There are two possibilities here: One, intelligence analysts are readily violating their oaths to protect and secure the information with which they work by gossiping with colleagues; or, two, the VIPS are simply lying about their access in order to look more relevant to the media.

Either way, VIPS’s actions are worth considering. A quick Lexis search shows that their most recent letter was picked up by the New York Times, the International Business Times-Germany, the Toronto Star, Iran’s Fars News Agency, and a number of blogs. If the intelligence veterans involved in VIPS are bluffing about their access, then that should be the first issue journalists address when reporting on the letter.

Let’s assume that the journalists did determine that men—many of whom have been out of the intelligence community for years—still gossip openly with colleagues on the inside, colleagues who must now be fairly senior in a bureaucracy that rewards seniority more than ability. Their chatter raises more problems. W. Patrick Lang, one of the signatories, once served as a registered foreign agent for a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician; in effect, he was a lobbyist for the Syrian regime. That members of the intelligence community would leak to such a figure should raise concerns. Lang also once confessed that his intelligence colleagues leaked information to influence the outcome of the 2004 U.S. presidential election. “Of course they were leaking,” the American Prospect reported Pat Lang as saying in the November 2005 issue. “They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They’d say things like, ‘This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won’t re-elect this man.’”

VIPS are pushing policy and in a quite dishonest way. Rather than simply report on the VIPS statements, the New York Times would do better to consider the implications of the group’s actions. So, too, should the internal affairs and security wings of the various intelligence communities whose alumni now are members of VIPS. For VIPS condones and represents not only a problem with leaking among the intelligence community, but also a malicious and politically driven kind of leaking that, as the Fars News Agency demonstrates, already provides comfort and propaganda to the enemy.

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Why Is Obama Leaking Syria Plans?

After years of inaction on atrocities in Syria, President Obama is finally prepared to act. The reason for this decision is clear: having said that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that the Assad regime could not cross, the evidence that he has done so has convinced the president that his already diminished credibility would be destroyed if he did nothing. But the leaks coming from figures inside the administration detailing what this reaction will entail raise more questions about the president’s policies than anything else. First among them is why what the New York Times describes as “a wide range of officials” have been empowered to lay out the plan, time, and extent of the attacks on the Syrian army.

As the Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial today, the leaks make the administration’s pursuit of Edward Snowden seem hypocritical, since the giving away of operational military plans strikes one as being every bit as dangerous, if not more so, than his giveaway of secrets about the National Security Agency’s counter-terror operations. But there is more to the leaks than mere hypocrisy. The signals emanating from the White House and the Pentagon constitute more than clear warnings to Damascus about what will happen. They are an attempt to spin the impending strikes to a skeptical American public that polls say wants no part of any involvement in the Syrian civil war no matter what horrors the participants have employed. If this were a novel, we might speculate the information coming from Washington is part of a plan of deception covering a more ambitious plan, but this isn’t a novel and no one in this administration appears to be that clever. Instead, what we are faced with is a military action whose purpose is to have as little effect on the war in Syria and the future of the Assad regime as possible. If true, it is hard to argue with those who will ask why the president is putting U.S. forces in jeopardy to accomplish so little.

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After years of inaction on atrocities in Syria, President Obama is finally prepared to act. The reason for this decision is clear: having said that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that the Assad regime could not cross, the evidence that he has done so has convinced the president that his already diminished credibility would be destroyed if he did nothing. But the leaks coming from figures inside the administration detailing what this reaction will entail raise more questions about the president’s policies than anything else. First among them is why what the New York Times describes as “a wide range of officials” have been empowered to lay out the plan, time, and extent of the attacks on the Syrian army.

As the Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial today, the leaks make the administration’s pursuit of Edward Snowden seem hypocritical, since the giving away of operational military plans strikes one as being every bit as dangerous, if not more so, than his giveaway of secrets about the National Security Agency’s counter-terror operations. But there is more to the leaks than mere hypocrisy. The signals emanating from the White House and the Pentagon constitute more than clear warnings to Damascus about what will happen. They are an attempt to spin the impending strikes to a skeptical American public that polls say wants no part of any involvement in the Syrian civil war no matter what horrors the participants have employed. If this were a novel, we might speculate the information coming from Washington is part of a plan of deception covering a more ambitious plan, but this isn’t a novel and no one in this administration appears to be that clever. Instead, what we are faced with is a military action whose purpose is to have as little effect on the war in Syria and the future of the Assad regime as possible. If true, it is hard to argue with those who will ask why the president is putting U.S. forces in jeopardy to accomplish so little.

It bears repeating that if the point of any such strikes is to hold Assad accountable, then a limited number of missile strikes on Syrian army targets that will neither topple the dictator (a goal that has been repeatedly endorsed and predicted by President Obama) or cripple his ability to go on committing atrocities doesn’t exactly fit the bill. If the strikes are what we are being led to expect, then what we are in store for is a noisy and dramatic version of a diplomatic note expressing American indignation.

As I noted yesterday, if the president doesn’t finish what he starts this week in Syria, it’s not clear there will be any real gains from the use of so many expensive military weapons. No matter how carefully this legion of Washington leakers spins the attacks, wars have a way of spinning out of the control of their planners. Should the U.S. strikes lead to missile attacks on Israel by Hezbollah, as that terrorist group’s Iranian masters warn, then the situation will turn out to be more complicated than the president thinks.

Just as dangerous is the likelihood that if Assad is still standing once the dust settles from a few days of limited U.S. attacks, America’s credibility will be in even worse shape than it is now. If a few weeks from now, the regime is not only still in place but still winning its war with Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah help, the president’s limited Syrian war will be seen as an empty gesture. Such an outcome would be a metaphor for a failed policy that will have serious implications for efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Seen in that light, rather than worrying so much about reassuring Americans that he doesn’t intend to do much in Syria, the president should be concerned about the implications of an episode that will be viewed as a metaphor for foreign-policy disaster.

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Obama’s Hypocritical War on Reporters

Revelations about the Justice Department’s spying on the Associated Press already had the media up in arms, but the news of yet another instance of the government cracking down on journalists seems to have woken much of the country to the truth about the administration’s disregard for freedom of the press. On Sunday the Washington Post reported that Fox News chief Washington correspondent (and COMMENTARY contributor) James Rosen was subjected to having his emails read and phone tapped in the course of an investigation of an alleged leak of classified information about North Korea.

Following similar action against the Associated Press, there can be no denying the chilling effect the snooping on journalists has on the ability of the press to do its job in a democracy. Indeed, the Rosen case ought to be a bridge too far for even those who understand that the government has a legitimate interest in preventing leaks. The egregious nature of the accusation against Rosen that he was a “co-conspirator” in what amounts to a charge of espionage, along with the government consultant who allegedly gave him information to report, betrays a lack of respect for journalists and journalism. It also shows a willingness to disregard the law that protects professional news gatherers from this kind of harassment.

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Revelations about the Justice Department’s spying on the Associated Press already had the media up in arms, but the news of yet another instance of the government cracking down on journalists seems to have woken much of the country to the truth about the administration’s disregard for freedom of the press. On Sunday the Washington Post reported that Fox News chief Washington correspondent (and COMMENTARY contributor) James Rosen was subjected to having his emails read and phone tapped in the course of an investigation of an alleged leak of classified information about North Korea.

Following similar action against the Associated Press, there can be no denying the chilling effect the snooping on journalists has on the ability of the press to do its job in a democracy. Indeed, the Rosen case ought to be a bridge too far for even those who understand that the government has a legitimate interest in preventing leaks. The egregious nature of the accusation against Rosen that he was a “co-conspirator” in what amounts to a charge of espionage, along with the government consultant who allegedly gave him information to report, betrays a lack of respect for journalists and journalism. It also shows a willingness to disregard the law that protects professional news gatherers from this kind of harassment.

What appears to have happened to Rosen is different from the AP case, in that unlike that fishing expedition that exposed more than 100 journalists to the revelation of their sources as well as invasions of their privacy, this investigation is limited to the Fox News reporter. The leak, which is supposed to have happened in 2009, concerned a report by Rosen that stated sources inside North Korea had informed the United States that Pyongyang would respond to United Nations sanctions with more nuclear tests.

But the notion that Rosen was an “abettor and/or co-conspirator” of Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, the alleged source of the leak, is an absurdity. The Post story said that according to the FBI, Rubin’s efforts to gain Kim’s confidence and to get him to give him information about the threat from North Korea “broke the law.” But the practices that the article described are not the product of a “covert” or “intelligence” operation. They are what journalists do every day in Washington and everywhere else as they seek to inform the public. There is no law against publishing classified information, so the government sought to use the Espionage Act to punish Rosen and his source. But treating journalists as spies renders the First Amendment protections of the press null and void. When the U.S. government behaves in this fashion it is saying in effect that there is no difference between the constitutional democracy led by Barack Obama and the authoritarian regime of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Say what you will about a dictator like Putin, but at least we are spared having his spokesman claim that he is a defender of a free and “unfettered” press while defending those who spy on reporters.

There is a legitimate public interest in keeping genuine classified information —as opposed to the mass of material that is merely labeled “classified”—secret. But what appears to be going on here is an administration campaign to both chill the press and to intimidate whistle-blowers and others inside the government. It also seems as if the administration is seeking to criminalize the normal give and take between journalists and officials that is the life’s blood of a free press.

But the problems don’t stop there. The targeting of a leading Fox News reporter as far back as 2009 at a time when, as Kirsten Powers notes today in the Daily Beast, the administration was doing its best to delegitimize the cable news channel makes one wonder if the Justice Department was taking its cue from its political masters when it sought to make an example of Rosen.

Another disturbing element of this topic is what appears to be the selective nature of the administration’s war on reporters.

Conservatives were angry last year when leaks about top-secret programs like the Stuxnet computer virus aimed at Iran’s nuclear program seemed to be part of an administration strategy to bolster the president’s reputation during an election year. The memory of the calls for investigations of those leaks now leads some of Obama’s defenders to decry what they see as hypocrisy on the right about their umbrage about the AP case. But the problem here is not the principle of leaking but whether the government is only prosecuting those leaks that did not suit the White House’s political interests.

Though the Justice Department has pursued more of these cases in the last four years than all of Obama’s predecessors combined, we have yet to learn of a leaker inside the White House doing the perp walk or one of the West Wing’s favorite outlets for such leaks being given the same treatment as the AP or Fox’s Rosen.

Once Kim has his day in court (which the Post says will be sometime in 2014), we’ll have a better idea of where the truth lies in this case, though the notion that Rosen’s reporting endangered national security strikes most observers, including liberal pundits who hate Fox, as lacking even a shred of credibility. But, as with the other leak investigations, the draconian efforts to make it harder for reporters to do their jobs seems to be part of a culture of intimidation that runs rampant in this administration. If President Obama really believes in protecting a free press he must act now to stop the Department of Justice from snooping on journalists in this manner. If not, he and his mouthpiece Jay Carney should stop pretending they have any respect for the Constitution. 

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