Commentary Magazine


Topic: White House leaks investigation

Anger Over Obama Leaks Isn’t Swift Boat II

Democrats are trying to portray ex-intelligence officials who are publicly criticizing the Obama administration’s leaking of sensitive material in order to boost the president’s political standing as partisans. They think by merely saying the words “Swift Boat,” the group, which calls itself Special Operations Opsec Education Fund, will be ignored or reviled. But the comparison to those Navy veterans who blasted John Kerry’s record during the 2004 campaign is not apt. Whatever the motivation of the original Swift Boat veterans, their beef was a personal grudge against Kerry. The issue the Opsec group is highlighting is a serious problem that has already resulted in federal investigations of the White House’s behavior.

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Democrats are trying to portray ex-intelligence officials who are publicly criticizing the Obama administration’s leaking of sensitive material in order to boost the president’s political standing as partisans. They think by merely saying the words “Swift Boat,” the group, which calls itself Special Operations Opsec Education Fund, will be ignored or reviled. But the comparison to those Navy veterans who blasted John Kerry’s record during the 2004 campaign is not apt. Whatever the motivation of the original Swift Boat veterans, their beef was a personal grudge against Kerry. The issue the Opsec group is highlighting is a serious problem that has already resulted in federal investigations of the White House’s behavior.

The White House is particularly unhappy because the group’s efforts threaten to tarnish the one tangible achievement of this administration: the killing of Osama bin Laden. The operation that ended the life of the arch terrorist was a brilliant military maneuver but it has become a political totem for the president. The killing has allowed him to pretend that a record of foreign policy failure has somehow been transformed into one of unadulterated success. While the president deserves credit for giving the okay for the strike (after reportedly refusing to do it three previous times), the shameless manner with which the administration blabbed classified information so as to portray Obama and his staff as fearless war leaders understandably angered the intelligence community. More importantly, it was just one more instance in which the White House leaked secrets for political gain. While the investigations of these leaks by two U.S. Attorneys may eventually lead to serious consequences for some individuals, the president shouldn’t be surprised that there is going to be some political damage as well.

The Swift Boat attacks on Kerry were controversial because they were seen as an unfair attempt to besmirch a decorated veteran who did face enemy fire. Kerry’s fellow veterans resented his portrayal as a hero and were bitter about his unconscionable attacks on fellow serviceman after he returned home from Vietnam. But whatever you may think about that dispute, there really is no comparison to criticism of Obama’s promiscuous leaking of classified material.

This is an administration that hasn’t hesitated to blab details about the most important covert operations and research, such as cyber warfare and the drone attacks on terrorists, so as to paint the president as a great man. The White House has clearly broken the law but it is unclear whether they will be made to pay for these violations since Obama appointees rather than an independent special prosecutor are conducting the investigations.

It should also be admitted that some of the anger about the leaks about the bin Laden operation are due to natural resentment by those who carry out such operations at the way the president’s team has used them as props in his re-election campaign. The president rarely makes a speech without mentioning bin Laden’s killing, and while he has given proper credit to those who actually risked their lives on this mission, there’s little doubt that the White House has worked hard to paint him as the true “hero” of the story.

While the election will not be won or lost on this issue, the blowback on the leaks is a lesson for all political leaders. Presidents who seek to take the lion’s share of the credit for the actions of those who serve in the military and who leak information to puff their own reputations will always be resented for doing so. Rather than blasting the Opsec veterans, what is needed from the administration is a little more humility from the commander-in-chief.

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The White House Shows Fear About Leaks

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.

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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.

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Romney Blasts Obama on Intel Leaks

Mitt Romney’s foreign policy speech to the VFW today hit the right marks, but was unfortunately sparse on details and lacked an overarching vision. It was definitely more of a political speech than an ideological one; he mentioned President Obama by name 14 times, and many of his positions were framed in terms of his opposition to Obama.

But Romney’s speech did get an assist from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. He quoted her while criticizing the administration’s intelligence leak investigation:

Lives of American servicemen and women are at stake. But astonishingly, the administration failed to change its ways. More top-secret operations were leaked, even some involving covert action in Iran.

This isn’t a partisan issue; it’s a national security crisis. And yesterday, Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, quote, “I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from their ranks.”

This conduct is contemptible. It betrays our national interest. It compromises our men and women in the field. And it demands a full and prompt investigation by a special counsel, with explanation and consequence. Obama appointees, who are accountable to President Obama’s attorney general, should not be responsible for investigating the leaks coming from the Obama White House.

Whoever provided classified information to the media, seeking political advantage for the administration, must be exposed, dismissed, and punished.  The time for stonewalling is over.

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Mitt Romney’s foreign policy speech to the VFW today hit the right marks, but was unfortunately sparse on details and lacked an overarching vision. It was definitely more of a political speech than an ideological one; he mentioned President Obama by name 14 times, and many of his positions were framed in terms of his opposition to Obama.

But Romney’s speech did get an assist from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. He quoted her while criticizing the administration’s intelligence leak investigation:

Lives of American servicemen and women are at stake. But astonishingly, the administration failed to change its ways. More top-secret operations were leaked, even some involving covert action in Iran.

This isn’t a partisan issue; it’s a national security crisis. And yesterday, Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, quote, “I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from their ranks.”

This conduct is contemptible. It betrays our national interest. It compromises our men and women in the field. And it demands a full and prompt investigation by a special counsel, with explanation and consequence. Obama appointees, who are accountable to President Obama’s attorney general, should not be responsible for investigating the leaks coming from the Obama White House.

Whoever provided classified information to the media, seeking political advantage for the administration, must be exposed, dismissed, and punished.  The time for stonewalling is over.

Obama has had decent poll numbers on his national security performance, though that’s mainly because he’s flouted the left’s policy prescriptions and increased the use of drones and other covert operations. The Obama campaign has been trashing Romney’s foreign policy “platitudes” — yes, really — in an effort to show how much more serious Obama supposedly is on these issues.

But Feinstein really undermined that with her acknowledgment yesterday that the intelligence leaks probably came from the White House. This is the last story the Obama campaign wants to be discussing on a day when it’s trying to play up its national security achievements before Romney’s Israel trip. Apparently somebody passed that message along to Feinstein, who backpedaled on her assertion this afternoon:

“I stated that I did not believe the president leaked classified information,” Feinstein said in the statement on Tuesday. “I shouldn’t have speculated beyond that, because the fact of the matter is I don’t know the source of the leaks.”

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney seized on Feinstein’s remarks in a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention Tuesday, accusing President Obama of not trying to find the source of the leaks until after the election.

Feinstein said that she regretted her comments were being used against Obama and said she was “disappointed” in Romney’s remarks.

It’s too bad Feinstein felt the need to backtrack, especially on something that’s so obvious. If some of the leaks were from the Presidential Daily Brief, this means there are a limited number of sources. The fact that the stories ended up benefiting the Obama White House politically gives you a good idea of the type of people who might have had a motive.

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Feinstein: Leaks Came From White House

Anyone with eyes and ears can figure out that some of the recent national security leaks most likely came from the White House, and yesterday Sen. Dianne Feinstein finally acknowledged the obvious:

“I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from its ranks. I don’t know specifically where, but they have to understand that and do something about it…

“To know what the president actually knows about this is difficult, because with respect to intelligence he is in a bubble. He has his [president’s daily brief] early every morning. And so he gets a briefing of intelligence. I don’t believe for a moment he goes out and talks about it. I don’t believe the briefers go out and talk about it. But who knows who else?”

Hmm. Was Feinstein suggesting in the second paragraph that the president might know the source of the leaks? That seems like a serious possibility. If the leaks came from the daily national security briefing as she indicates, clearly there is a finite number of people who could be the culprits. Feinstein rules out the briefers (Director of National Intelligence James Clapper), but suggests it could have been anybody else in the meeting.

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Anyone with eyes and ears can figure out that some of the recent national security leaks most likely came from the White House, and yesterday Sen. Dianne Feinstein finally acknowledged the obvious:

“I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from its ranks. I don’t know specifically where, but they have to understand that and do something about it…

“To know what the president actually knows about this is difficult, because with respect to intelligence he is in a bubble. He has his [president’s daily brief] early every morning. And so he gets a briefing of intelligence. I don’t believe for a moment he goes out and talks about it. I don’t believe the briefers go out and talk about it. But who knows who else?”

Hmm. Was Feinstein suggesting in the second paragraph that the president might know the source of the leaks? That seems like a serious possibility. If the leaks came from the daily national security briefing as she indicates, clearly there is a finite number of people who could be the culprits. Feinstein rules out the briefers (Director of National Intelligence James Clapper), but suggests it could have been anybody else in the meeting.

Remember, David Axelrod vehemently denied that the leaks came from the White House in June:

“In both cases, they quote members of the president’s national security team who were in the room,” [ABC News’ George] Stephanopoulos said. “So somebody who was in the room with the president was giving out some of this information or at least discussing classified information.”

“I think the authors of all of this work have said that the White House was not the source of this information,” Axelrod replied. “I can’t say that there weren’t leaks. There were obvious leaks, but they weren’t from the White House.” …

“The last thing that he would countenance or anybody around him would countenance are leaks that would jeopardize the security of Americans on these secret missions, and the success of those missions.”

“So you’re confident this investigation’s not going to show White House involvement?” Stephanopoulos said.

“Yes,” Axelrod said.

Feinstein hasn’t yet called for a special prosecutor, but based on her comments, it seems like that has to be the next move. Does anyone really expect the Department of Justice to fairly investigate a leak within the president’s inner circle? Unless the White House gets serious on this on its own (which would require appointing a special prosecutor anyway), there will have to be outside pressure before it’ll take action.

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Scandals a Preview of Second Obama Term

Earlier this year, a hot mic caught an unfortunate bit of candor when President Obama told former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that once safely re-elected he would have the “flexibility” to please the Kremlin better than he could before November. That confession alerted wavering independents that what they hear on the campaign trail from the president might bear very little resemblance to the policies that a second Obama administration would implement. That is especially true when it comes to foreign policy where the election year Jewish charm policy vis-à-vis Israel has been such a departure from the first three years of his administration.

But however great the contrast may be between what the president is promising and what he plans on delivering, that might be nothing when compared to the difference between what he thinks a second term will be like and the actual experience. Right now, with Mitt Romney continuing to rise in the polls and the Democrats showing weakness around the country, the only thing the president seems to be thinking of is the necessity to do or say anything he needs to in order to beat the Republicans. Setbacks, such as the jobs numbers, and scandals, such as the fallout from the Fast and Furious investigation and the probe into the administration’s press leaks about cyber warfare and other secret matters seem to be merely obstacles to the all-consuming task of securing 270 Electoral College votes. To the extent that they rivet his attention, it is only to the extent of figuring out how to damp down the controversy until after the election.

But these scandals should serve as a reminder to the president that even if he is able to win this year, the following four years may turn out to be an unremitting hell.

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Earlier this year, a hot mic caught an unfortunate bit of candor when President Obama told former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that once safely re-elected he would have the “flexibility” to please the Kremlin better than he could before November. That confession alerted wavering independents that what they hear on the campaign trail from the president might bear very little resemblance to the policies that a second Obama administration would implement. That is especially true when it comes to foreign policy where the election year Jewish charm policy vis-à-vis Israel has been such a departure from the first three years of his administration.

But however great the contrast may be between what the president is promising and what he plans on delivering, that might be nothing when compared to the difference between what he thinks a second term will be like and the actual experience. Right now, with Mitt Romney continuing to rise in the polls and the Democrats showing weakness around the country, the only thing the president seems to be thinking of is the necessity to do or say anything he needs to in order to beat the Republicans. Setbacks, such as the jobs numbers, and scandals, such as the fallout from the Fast and Furious investigation and the probe into the administration’s press leaks about cyber warfare and other secret matters seem to be merely obstacles to the all-consuming task of securing 270 Electoral College votes. To the extent that they rivet his attention, it is only to the extent of figuring out how to damp down the controversy until after the election.

But these scandals should serve as a reminder to the president that even if he is able to win this year, the following four years may turn out to be an unremitting hell.

It is a rule of politics that second terms tend to be unhappy times for even the most popular of presidents. While presidents may think that they will be free of constraints once the burden of the need to think about re-election is lifted from their shoulders, in many cases the opposite is true. Though a re-elected president has great power, the extra four years is often spent playing defense as Congress, the press and the public begin sifting through the mistakes and scandals. No matter how great the hopes that may have been engendered by his initial campaign, even Barack Obama is subject to the laws of political gravity.

That is why the probes of Fast and Furious and the security leaks are not merely damaging in of themselves but serve as a preview of what a second Obama administration will look like. Right now, the president may think that by stalling Congress with spurious claims of executive privilege he can avoid the consequences of the Justice Department’s misconduct during the course of the Mexican gun running scam. He may also believe that the senior staffers who were undoubtedly guilty of spilling the beans about cyber warfare research and other sensitive matters relating to the confrontation with Iran will be able to prevaricate long enough so as to avoid any political consequences from these transgressions.

But he is kidding himself if he believes victory in November will make these problems go away. The investigations of these and perhaps other transgressions will only gather steam.

So long as either the Senate or the House of Representatives remain in the hands of the Republicans, the Obama White House will be under siege in the next four years as the scandal probes intensify. And if, as is very possible, the GOP will run both, he will not only find his legislative initiatives dead on arrival, but also be forced to watch as the trail of evidence on these scandals leads perilously close to the Oval Office.

Though we only tend to speak of presidents being lame ducks in their last year in office, it is a rare second term that does not expose the arrogance of power that tends to attach itself to many who work in the White House. President Obama was relatively lucky throughout most of his first term in that he and his top staff managed to avoid being mired in scandals even as they picked policy fights that often proved to be losers. But it is likely that Fast and Furious and the leaks will be only the beginning of a series of second term problems that will pick off senior administration figures and even further taint this administration’s reputation. Victory in November will be just the start of his problems, not their solution.

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Watergate and the White House Leaks

In an interview today, Representative Peter King said that the growing scandal about the recent spate of national security leaks is not only worse than Watergate; it dwarfs it. There’s “no comparison” between the two. Watergate, according to King, “meant nothing.” Now I believe, with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, that the leaks to the New York Times about the Osama bin Laden raid, the president directing drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen based on a classified “kill list” of terror suspects, and especially the cyber campaign to disrupt and spy on Iran’s nuclear weapons program are quite serious. I wouldn’t downplay their significance for a moment. But neither should Watergate be understated.

As Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote in an article commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, “at its most virulent, Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by [Richard] Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law.” It involved a “massive campaign of political espionage, sabotage and other illegal activities against [Nixon’s] real or perceived opponents.”

The Woodward and Bernstein article is most useful in quoting from the Watergate tapes, where the things discussed included blackmail, hush money, illegal wiretapping, political sabotage, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice. When the president of the United States approves a plan directing the CIA to impede a criminal investigation by the FBI in order to cover up his administration’s illegal acts, it means something. There is a reason that Nixon’s party abandoned him. His impending impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate convinced Nixon to resign. “Too many lies, too many crimes,” in the words of Barry Goldwater.

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In an interview today, Representative Peter King said that the growing scandal about the recent spate of national security leaks is not only worse than Watergate; it dwarfs it. There’s “no comparison” between the two. Watergate, according to King, “meant nothing.” Now I believe, with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, that the leaks to the New York Times about the Osama bin Laden raid, the president directing drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen based on a classified “kill list” of terror suspects, and especially the cyber campaign to disrupt and spy on Iran’s nuclear weapons program are quite serious. I wouldn’t downplay their significance for a moment. But neither should Watergate be understated.

As Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote in an article commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, “at its most virulent, Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by [Richard] Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law.” It involved a “massive campaign of political espionage, sabotage and other illegal activities against [Nixon’s] real or perceived opponents.”

The Woodward and Bernstein article is most useful in quoting from the Watergate tapes, where the things discussed included blackmail, hush money, illegal wiretapping, political sabotage, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice. When the president of the United States approves a plan directing the CIA to impede a criminal investigation by the FBI in order to cover up his administration’s illegal acts, it means something. There is a reason that Nixon’s party abandoned him. His impending impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate convinced Nixon to resign. “Too many lies, too many crimes,” in the words of Barry Goldwater.

The Nixon presidency, whatever else it might have achieved, ended up as a criminal conspiracy. Richard Nixon brought the nation he was elected to serve to the edge of a constitutional crisis. No person – and certainly no member of Congress, who after all has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution – should minimize what Watergate was about.

Woodward would later say, “Accountability to the law applies to everyone. The problem with kings, and prime ministers, and presidents, is that they think they are above it, and there is no accountability, and that they have some special rights, and privileges, and status. And a process that says: No. We have our laws and believe them, and they apply to everyone, is a very good thing. … I happen to believe in the essentially conservative idea that concentrations of power are unsafe and that those concentrations of power need to be monitored and held to account regularly. Watergate did that like nothing else that ever happened in this country.”

Those are words worth pondering, even for – and maybe especially for – those who have forgotten the significance of what happened 40 years ago this month.

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Dems Block Resolution on WH Leak Probe

Sen. John McCain, who has been out in front on the White House leaking scandal, introduced a resolution earlier today calling for a special counsel to investigate. The Hill reports it was immediately blocked by Senate Democrats:

McCain introduced a resolution Tuesday expressing the Senate’s support for [Attorney General Eric] Holder to appoint a special prosecutor. But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) objected after McCain asked for unanimous consent that the Senate proceed to consideration of his resolution.

“What is at issue here is whether or not we are going to give an opportunity for U.S. attorneys, professionals in their fields, to handle this particular inquiry,” Wyden said. “And I see no evidence, Mr. President, that the way U.S. attorneys are handling this investigation at this time is not with the highest standards of professionalism.”

Democrats are (to their credit) willing to criticize the White House for the leaks, but so far they’ve lacked the political courage to call for a special prosecutor to lead the investigation. Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the most vocal of these Democratic critics, announced her opposition to a special counsel appointment today. Feinstein said that the two attorneys appointed by the Department of Justice can handle the investigation — despite concerns over conflict of interest — and insisted that appointing a special prosecutor would needlessly prolong the investigation.

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Sen. John McCain, who has been out in front on the White House leaking scandal, introduced a resolution earlier today calling for a special counsel to investigate. The Hill reports it was immediately blocked by Senate Democrats:

McCain introduced a resolution Tuesday expressing the Senate’s support for [Attorney General Eric] Holder to appoint a special prosecutor. But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) objected after McCain asked for unanimous consent that the Senate proceed to consideration of his resolution.

“What is at issue here is whether or not we are going to give an opportunity for U.S. attorneys, professionals in their fields, to handle this particular inquiry,” Wyden said. “And I see no evidence, Mr. President, that the way U.S. attorneys are handling this investigation at this time is not with the highest standards of professionalism.”

Democrats are (to their credit) willing to criticize the White House for the leaks, but so far they’ve lacked the political courage to call for a special prosecutor to lead the investigation. Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the most vocal of these Democratic critics, announced her opposition to a special counsel appointment today. Feinstein said that the two attorneys appointed by the Department of Justice can handle the investigation — despite concerns over conflict of interest — and insisted that appointing a special prosecutor would needlessly prolong the investigation.

The strong opposition from Democrats is interesting. They certainly didn’t have the same concerns about DOJ appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the Valerie Plame leak, which had far fewer national security implications. Resolving this case as quickly as possible is important, but the overriding concern should be to get it right.

By opposing the special counsel appointment, Democrats are basically demanding that we blindly believe the White House’s claim that the leaks were unauthorized. Of course there’s no way to know for sure. Even if you’re inclined to trust the White House, there is still always a chance – slim as we might hope — that the leaks were approved at the highest level. And, if that’s the case, should we really let the administration control an investigation of itself?

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