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Barack Obama, Leaker in Chief

Transparency only when it hurts America.

By Will Offensicht  |  May 23, 2011

During the Presidential Campaign, Mr. Obama promised that his administration would be the most transparent ever.  At the time, he was out of power.

Those who are out of power love transparency because transparency reveals information which embarrasses the powerful.  That's why the powerful hate transparency - secrecy is the primary tool of tyranny, of course, but given how incompetent government is by its very nature, it's helpful even to governments that aren't tyrannies.

Once he attained power, Mr. Obama did a complete flip-flop.  Instead of being transparent about the details of Obamacare as it was being discussed, the kilopage monstrosity was kept secret.  Ms. Pelosi famously declared that we'd have to wait until they passed Obamacare before we could see what was in it.

Their caution was well founded - since the law became public, more and more problems with cost and delivery have come to light.  Given all this criticism, they might not have been able to pass it if the administration had been as transparent as Mr. Obama had promised.

Transparency Conflicts

Mr. Obama also said he'd encourage whistle-blowers - government employees who reveal hidden malfeasance and waste - but that promise has likewise been broken.

The May 23 issue of the New Yorker had an article "The Secret Sharer" about Thomas Drake.  Mr. Drake is a whistle-blower who once worked for the National Security Agency.  He revealed that the NSA had wasted billions of dollars on a failed data collection system.

He also claimed that the NSA is intercepting and storing essentially all email traffic both worldwide and in the United States.  Collecting American data without a warrant is against the law, even under the Patriot Act.

Wasting money and systematic violations of the law are precisely what Mr. Obama declared that whistleblowers should target, but his Justice Department is instead prosecuting Mr. Drake for violating the Espionage Act.

After discussing the firestorm which erupted when it was found that the Bush administration had been tapping American telephone calls without warrants, the New Yorker discussed Mr. Obama's attitude towards transparency:

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a conservative political scientist at the Hudson Institute, who, in his book "Necessary Secrets" (2009), argues for more stringent protection of classified information, says, "Ironically, Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history - even more so than Nixon."  [emphasis added] ...

Obama, Balkin [a liberal law professor at Yale] says, has "systematically adopted policies consistent with the second term of the Bush administration." ...

Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, attended the meeting [March 28 between Mr. Obama and five transparency advocates], and said that Obama's tone was generally supportive of transparency.  But when the subject of national security leaks came up, Brian said, "the President shifted in his seat and leaned forward.  He said that this may be where we have some differences.  He said he doesn't want to protect people who leak to the media war plans that could impact the troops."

The Leaker in Chief

Mr. Obama's expressed concern for protecting our troops is well taken, but when it comes to leaking critical information for short-term political advantage, he's become our Leaker in Chief.

When Osama bin Laden was killed by our Special Forces, the computers, hard drives, and other data retrieved from the hideout gave us leads to many of his partners in crime.  Unfortunately, by announcing his death so promptly, Mr. Obama warned everyone whose name might be in Mr. Bin Laden's treasure trove to run and hide.

If Obama had held back the announcement for only a few days, it would have had just as much impact - but our intelligence staff would have had time to track down some of Mr. Bin Laden's colleagues in evil and grab their bank accounts before they vanished on the run into a different cave.

Nobody except a very few trusted couriers knew where Bin Laden lived.  The Pakistanis were certainly not going to publicize the fact that he'd been living in their midst.  If nobody in al Qaeda knew that Mr. Bin Laden's data had been compromised, everybody he'd kept records of could have been rounded up.  Mr. Obama gave away a massive, unprecedented opportunity to damage al-Qaeda, not even for ephemeral political gain, but simply to bring that gain forward a couple of days to no useful end.

What's more, there was so much euphoria in the White House and elsewhere in the administration that Mr. Obama's minions gave away details about what we did and how we did it.  If they hadn't told everyone, al Qaeda would have had to send messages - "Where's Osama?  Anybody heard from him?" - to try to figure out what had happened.  Tracking these messages would have gives us yet more information.

It's hard to imagine our military not begging the President to give them at least a couple days or a week to exploit the Bin Laden data.  Consider how much more impact Mr. Obama's announcement would have had if he could have said, a) we also got his 5 closest associates, b) we disrupted 3 planned attacks, and c) we seized xx millions of their funds.  A little actual concern for protecting important secrets would have served us well and given him a better story to tell.

Telling How We Did It

What's worse, leaking the details of how we tracked Bin Laden will make it harder to track his associates.  One reason it was hard to find Bin Laden was that President Clinton leaked the fact that we were monitoring Osama Bin Laden’s satellite cell phone.  Not being a complete idiot, Osama instantly stopped using his phone and gave up all electronic devices - his compound had neither a telephone nor an Internet connection.  Only a few trusted couriers knew his location.  Information about him dried up.

If Mr. Clinton hadn't leaked, we might have known about 9-11 in advance, the Twin Towers might still be standing, and 3,000 people might not have died, to say nothing of the cost of the "War on Terror."  During WWII, everyone knew that "Loose lips sink ships," but neither Mr. Clinton nor Mr. Obama have any military experience.

If Mr. Bin Laden could learn so much from hearing that we were tracking his cell phone, how much more will his successors learn from the stories of how we tracked him down and how we attacked his compound?

Mr. Obama, our Leaker in Chief, has greatly reduced the gains from a successful military operation and compromised our future ability to track down other enemies.  At the same time, his Justice Department is prosecuting a whistle-blower who embarrassed the NSA without leaking any classified information.

Bottom Line 

Mr. Obama wanted transparency when he was out of power, but now that he's in power, he doesn't want us to know what he's doing.  No change, no hope.