When the New York Times published a detailed story by chief Washington correspondent David Sanger today confirming the U.S. as the co-author of the Stuxnet virus and outlining Barack Obama's role in directing a highly classified digital monkeywrenching program against Iranian nuclear facilities, many observers noted that the story couldn't have been written without White House support. Which is odd, considering how much energy the White House has been putting into prosecuting leaks it doesn't like.
Sanger's story contains a wealth of presumably Top Secret data about the Stuxnet program—dubbed "Olympic Games" by the CIA—including a direct quote from Vice President Joe Biden during a Situation Room meeting about the operation. Not to diminish Sanger's reporting—one man's hard-won scoop is another man's "official leak"—but it's impossible to imagine that Sanger could have gathered the level of detail that he did about the classified program if the White House didn't want at least some of the information to reach the public.
Considering the fact that Obama's Justice Department has relentlessly pursued even the most innocuous leakers of classified information that it didn't want reaching the public, from NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake to former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling, who allegedly leaked details of a failed CIA operation against Iran to Times reporter James Risen, the story reeked of White House hypocrisy. As Associated Press national security reporter Matt Apuzzo put it:
Sanger writes on successful Iranian operation, gets wide access. Risen writes on botched Iranian operation, gets subpoenaed. #transparency
— Matt Apuzzo (@mattapuzzo) June 1, 2012
White House spokesman Josh Earnest tried to rebut that notion of "wide access" today, insisting at a press gaggle that the disclosures of classified information in Sanger's piece "pose a significant threat to national security." When a reporter asked him if the story was an "authorized leak," Earnest feigned shock.
Q So, Josh, you won't comment on the actual content in the Times story, but it cites remarks that the President and the Vice President made inside the Situation Room. It seems very obvious that this is an authorized leak. So —
MR. EARNEST: Why would you say that?
Q — in the Situation Room. Obviously it's not a national security concern to talk about it. So for what reason won't you talk to us about it?
MR. EARNEST: I disagree with you in the strongest possible terms about your characterization of that handling of classified data. There is a reason that information is classified. It's classified for a reason, because publicizing that information would pose a significant threat to national security. So I disagree entirely with the premise of the question as you posed it.
Q So are you saying that there was — are you denying there was an authorized leak?
MR. EARNEST: I'm saying that I'm not in a position to talk to you about any of the details that were included in the story. But I am telling you that this administration — well, that it's our view, as it is the view of everybody who handles classified information, that information is classified for a reason; that it is kept secret, it is intended not to be publicized because publicizing it would pose a threat to our national security.
Later, a reporter asked Earnest if the White House had asked the Times not to publish such a dangerous story. "I don't have any details for you in terms of the way that that story was handled," he responded.
The answer is no. "No government agency formally requested that I not publish the story," Sanger told me via email. And a sourcing note in Sanger's forthcoming book Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, from which today's Stuxnet story was excerpted, makes clear that U.S. intelligence officials were abundantly aware of the substance of what he was going to report: "Following the practice of the Times in reporting on national security, I discussed with senior government officials the potential risks of publication of sensitive information that touches on ongoing intelligence operations. At the government's request, and in consultation with editors, I withheld a limited number of details that senior government officials said could jeopardize current or planned operations.''
In other words, at least as far as today's story is concerned, "senior government officials" were aware that the Times was on the verge of releasing highly classified details about a CIA operation. One that happened to have been effective, and the execution of which reflected well on Obama. And neither the White House nor the CIA formally did anything to try and stop it. Imagine that.
The CIA declined to comment. A White House spokesman referred me to Earnest's comments at the gaggle.
[Image via Getty]