Analysts: 'The ship of state always leaks,' but damage is less certain

Historians say managing White House leaks can be politically precarious.

Story highlights

  • Administration takes steps to prevent leaks, White House spokesman says
  • Presidential historians say information leaks, especially in election years, are legion
  • There are "clean, meaningful leaks" and "sloppy" ones, historian Douglas Brinkley says
  • "The ship of state always leaks," says historian Thomas Whalen

Presidential election years amplify controversies over leaks of classified information, but it's unclear how egregious the leak about an alleged U.S. cyberwar against Iran may be to national security, presidential historians and analysts say.

"To me, it's absolutely difficult to decipher in a presidential election what is high policy and what is politics, because they bleed into each other," said Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, who edited "The Reagan Diaries."

"In every election year, there's always leaks of some sort," Brinkley said. "Leaks happen every day in Washington. This one (about the purported cyberwar against Iran) is large because it could inflame the Middle East and create a difficult situation between Iran and the United States. Nobody at this juncture knows where this leak comes from."

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Boston University historian Thomas Whalen said the bipartisan outrage over a New York Times account last week that provided classified details of what it described as a U.S cyberattack targeting Iran's nuclear centrifuge program seems "a manufactured crisis."

"The ship of state always leaks," Whalen said. "You have commanders in chief like John F. Kennedy: He was surprised that more secrets on what they were planning didn't get out. It goes with the job.

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"This is part of political gamesmanship," stated Whalen, author of "A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage."

"Because it is an election year, everything is heightened, and a leak takes on more importance," he said.

Congressional leaders on intelligence issues met Thursday with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on the apparent leaks of classified information about cyberwarfare.

Sen. John McCain and other Republicans alleged that the White House must be knowingly involved because of the nature of the leaked information.

The White House denied the accusations.

Press secretary Jay Carney told reporters the administration takes steps to prevent leaks that could risk ongoing counterterrorism or intelligence operations.

"Any suggestion that the White House has leaked sensitive information for political purposes has no basis in fact," he said Thursday.

Obama would not agree to an investigation by an independent counsel, Carney said.

Whalen described McCain as "demagoguing."

"He, of all people, should understand," Whalen said of the longtime senator from Arizona who made an unsuccessful run for the presidency.

Congressional leaders call for halt to 'cascade of leaks'

But on Wednesday, a U.S. official said on condition of not being identified that the FBI was investigating the leaks. FBI spokesman Paul Bresson had no comment.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, also said he was informed that an FBI inquiry was under way.

House and Senate Intelligence Committee leaders said they intended to tighten access to classified information, "as well as to ensure that criminal and administrative measures are taken each time sensitive information is improperly disclosed."

Managing leaks can be politically precarious, Whalen said.

President Richard Nixon created the "plumbers unit" to suppress leaks, an effort that led to Watergate and the downfall of Nixon's presidency, Whalen said.

"This is a democracy, and we do have a free press," Whalen said. "Despite all of the things that are done to prevent these things from trying to get out, it's a waste of time."

Leaks deliver political messages, but the difference between a White House leak and a presidential news conference is that "leaks tend to create conspiracy theories and charges of partisan politics," Brinkley said.

"One of the hardest things to do is to protect classified information," Brinkley said. "There's a difference between a clean, meaningful leak and a sloppy one that has unintended consequences."

Is the latest leak sloppy or clean?

"We don't quite know the story yet," Brinkley said.

The president could be hit with political fallout if his office crossed a line by leaking information that threatened the nation's security, Brinkley said.

"Right now, that line hasn't been drawn, so it's a plus for President Obama," Brinkley said.