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STATEMENT BY SENATOR JOHN McCAIN ON OBAMA ADMINISTRATION’S NATIONAL SECURITY LEAKS

June 19, 2012

“Mr. President, over the last two weeks, several Members of this body and I have raised serious concerns about a series of leaks that recently appeared in several publications concerning certain military and intelligence activities – activities that the authors themselves cite as among the Nation’s most highly classified and sensitive. These enormously troubling leaks have raised concerns amongst both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, including leaders of our Intelligence, Armed Services, Foreign Relations, and Homeland Security Committees.

 

“According to Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, ‘these disclosures have seriously interfered with ongoing intelligence programs and have put at jeopardy our intelligence capability to act in the future. Each disclosure,’ she said, ‘puts American lives at risk, makes it more difficult to recruit assets, strains the trust of our partners, and threatens imminent and irreparable damage to our national security in the face of urgent and rapidly adapting threats worldwide.’ For these reasons and more, 26 other Members and I filed a resolution that conveys the sense of the Senate that the Attorney General should appoint an outside special counsel to investigate these leaks.

“I certainly understand that robust public debate about the nation’s offensive use of cyber-related and unmanned-strike capabilities is valuable and warranted. The use of these kinds of military capabilities is new, and how these secretive war-fighting capabilities should be deployed by a modern democracy deserves careful and thoughtful discussion. But, the detail with which these articles lay out particular counterterrorism activities and, as one commentator recently described, the ‘triumphalist tone of the leaks – the Tarzan-like chest-beating of [the] various leakers’ greatly exceeded what is necessary or appropriate for that discussion.

“Something else – something very different – is going on.

“Considering how closely in time these items were published and how favorable of an impression they left about the President’s approach to national security, it is not unreasonable to ask whether these leaks were part of a broader effort to paint President Obama – in the midst of an election year – as a strong leader on national security issues. That is the strong impression given.

“The most compelling evidence is the obvious participation of some of the Administration's senior-most officials. Among the sources that New York Times journalist David Sanger cited in the passages of his recent book pertaining to U.S. cyberattacks on Iran are ‘administration officials’ and ‘senior officials;’ ‘senior aides’ to the President; ‘members of the President’s national security team who were in the [White House Situation Room]’ during key discussions; an official ‘who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program;’ ‘current … American officials … [who would not] allow their names to be used because the effort remains highly classified, and parts of it continue to this day;’ and several sources who would be ‘fired’ for what they divulged – presumably, because what they divulged was classified or otherwise very sensitive. Some of the sources in the recent publications specifically refused to be identified because what they were talking about related to classified or ongoing programs.

“In his book, which describes the Administration’s use of drones in Yemen, Newsweek journalist Daniel Klaidman writes, ‘[w]hen I quote President Obama or other key characters, I do so only if that quote was relayed to me by a source who personally heard it.’ On Sunday, a reviewer of both Mr. Sanger's and Mr. Klaidman's books for The Washington Post found, as I did, that ‘[both authors] were clearly given extraordinary access to key players in the administration to write their books’ – and that ‘[i]n some cases, they appear to have talked to the same sources: [s]everal of their stories track nearly word for word.’

“Perhaps most illuminating in all of the articles and books is how, taken together, they describe an overall perspective within the Obama White House that has viewed U.S. counterterrorism and other sensitive activities in extraordinarily political terms and taken on a related approach about how classified information should be handled. Both approaches would have predisposed the Administration to the most recent, egregious national security leaks.

“There are plenty of examples of how the Administration apparently viewed these highly sensitive matters through a political prism. In his book, Mr. Klaidman observed that then-White House Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel, ‘pushed the CIA to publicize’ successes associated with a covert drone program because, quote, ‘the muscular attacks could have a huge political upside for Obama, insulating him from charges that he was weak on terror.’ Mr. Klaidman noted, that ‘[as to the killing of a particular drone target,] [CIA] public affairs officers anonymously trumpeted their triumph, leaking colorful tidbits to trusted reporters on the intelligence beat, [with] [n]ewspapers describ[ing] the hit in cinematic detail.’

“A recent article in The New York Times similarly noted, ‘David Axelrod, the president’s closest political adviser, began showing up at the “Terror Tuesday” meetings [during which drone targeting was discussed], his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.’ And, in his recent book, Mr. Sanger notes, ‘[O]ver the course of 2009, more and more people inside the Obama White House were being “read into” the cyber program, even those not directly involved. As the reports from the latest iteration of the [cyber-]bug arrived, meetings were held to assess what kind of damage had been done, and the room got more and more crowded.’

“Let’s look at another anecdote in Mr. Sanger’s book that provides another powerful example of what I am talking about. In this excerpt, Mr. Sanger depicts a curious meeting that occurred in the fall of 2009 in Pittsburgh at the G-20 economic summit. He writes:

“‘As often happens when the president travels, there was a dinner organized with a number of other reporters and several of Obama’s political aides, including David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. The talk was mostly politics and the economic downturn. But just as coffee was being served, a senior official in the National Security Council tapped me on the shoulder. After dinner, he said, I should take the elevator to the floor of the hotel where the president had his suite. ‘We’ll talk about Iran,’ he whispered.

“‘Obama was not back at the hotel when we gathered that evening outside his suite. But most of the rest of the national security staff was present and armed with the intelligence that had been collected over many years about Iran’s secret site. As they laid it out on a coffee table in the hotel suite, it was clear that this new site was relatively small: it had enough room, they estimated, for three thousand centrifuges. …

“‘Via satellite photos, the United States had mapped the construction of the building – useful if it ever had to hit it. It was clear from the details that the United States had interviewed scientists who had been inside the underground facility. … We spent an hour reviewing the evidence. I probed them to reveal how the facility was discovered and received evasive answers … Then I went down to my hotel room and began writing the story.

“It absolutely eludes me under what circumstances it would be appropriate for a senior national security official to provide a reporter the opportunity to review for an hour what appears to have been raw intelligence supporting the government’s recent discovery of secret nuclear sites in Iran. Yet, this vignette is indicative of what appears throughout the book as a pervasive Administration perspective that viewed even the nation’s most secretive military and intelligence activities in starkly politically terms and was overly lax on how related intelligence should be handled. These stories provide a revealing context for the most recent leaks – leaks that everyone has conceded have compromised our national security.

“I would like to believe that the Justice Department will get to the bottom of all this. But after watching senior White House advisor David Plouffe’s appearance on Fox News on Sunday, I highly doubt that it will. I was particularly troubled by Mr. Plouffe’s inability or refusal to answer whether the White House will cooperate fully with the investigation and whether President Obama would agree to be questioned by investigators as President Bush was during the Valerie Plame case. I was also discomforted by Mr. Plouffe’s statement that the White House talked to Mr. Sanger for his book but did not leak classified information, which of course prejudges the outcome of the investigations.

“As one commentator observed yesterday, Mr. Plouffe’s answers ‘were so rehearsed, clumsy and full of forced distractions and faux frustration that[,] if [his] interview [on Fox News] had been conducted by law enforcement[,] Plouffe would have been told he was going for a ride downtown to the police station for further questioning.’ As this commentator noted, from these sorts of appearances, it's apparent that ‘[t]he administration has something to hide. Plouffe could not have been more parsed, poorly prepared or unconvincing.’

“Moreover, just this past Friday, The Washington Post reported that federal authorities have interviewed more than 100 people in the two ongoing leak investigations and, specifically citing ‘officials familiar with the probes,’ described these interviews as ‘the start of a process that could take months or even years.’ According to anonymous ‘officials,’ the Post also noted that ‘the pace of the investigations is partly driven by the large number of government officials who had access to the material that was disclosed and who now must be interviewed.’ The fact that details about these leak investigations are themselves being leaked does not inspire me with confidence that we are on the right track.

“Furthermore, according to the Post, citing ‘officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter,’ the two pending investigations focus on the Associated Press’ article about a disrupted terrorist bomb plot by al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and The New York Times’ report about the Obama administration’s role in authorizing cyberattacks against Iran. In other words, there appears to be no probe of the leaks relating to U.S. drone operations. Apparently, ‘officials’ told the Post that such an investigation had not been requested.

“Why not?

“With the passage of time, the need for the Attorney General to appoint an outside special counsel to independently investigate and, where appropriate, hold accountable those found responsible for these egregious violations of our national security, becomes clearer and stronger. At the end of the day, can we really expect the Administration to investigate itself impartially in the midst of an election on a matter as highly sensitive and damaging as this leaks case, especially when those responsible could themselves be members of the Administration? Plus, we are not talking about an isolated instance of one leak. As my colleague, the chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Feinstein rightly observed, we are talking about ‘an avalanche of leaks’ on national security matters – the implications of which are severe.

“To date, I have seen no evidence that suggests that the American people should rely on the direction that the White House has chosen to provide a full and timely investigation of these leaks. For these reasons, I once again call on the appointment of an outside special counsel to do so, today.

“Thank you, Mr. President.”

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