The Best Defense

The Best Defense interview: Steve Coll on White House leaks & what might happen

The Best Defense is on Winter Break until the new year. Until then, here are some favorites from the past year. This post originally ran on Mar. 27, 2013.

Steve Coll, a former managing editor of the Washington Post and author of Ghost Wars, a favorite book of many readers of this blog, is one of the best journalists I've ever met. He especially understands intelligence matters, national security, and Washington. So when he wrote this week in the New Yorker about the possibility of high-level indictments of national security officials at the Obama White House, I paid attention. Here is an e-mail interview I conducted with him:

  • What makes you think that there may be indictments of high-level Obama administration officials down the road?

It's clear that the Justice Department has been carrying out extensive interviews with current and former senior administration officials about David Sanger's excellent reporting on the Obama administration's involvement in cyberattacks against Iran. At the same time, the administration has established that it is willing to tolerate aggressive leak prosecutions against current and former government officials. Equally, the White House is allowing Justice prosecutors to make such decisions without political interference -- as is proper (See: Richard Nixon). So if you add all that up, indictments are a possibility.

  • Have you talked to David Sanger, or to anyone else at the New York Times, about the leaks to him? If so, what did they say?

I have not formally approached the Times or Sanger about this investigation -- the subject of my New Yorker reporting was the separate prosecution of former C.I.A. officer John Kiriakou, who pleaded guilty and became the first C.I.A. officer ever sent to prison for providing information to the American press. In that longer story, I mentioned the ongoing Sanger case as context, based on what I picked up along the reporting trail, and I cited some reporting by the Washington Post, which appeared earlier this year.

  • Do you think that the situation with Sanger and high-level Obama administration officials may have altered the Times's coverage of national security issues? If so, how?

I don't have any reason to think that. The Times, under executive editor Bill Keller and now Jill Abramson, has had to handle a succession of tricky editorial and publishing decisions involving classified information, from Wikileaks to these multiple leak investigations by the National Security Division at Justice. There was the Kiriakou case, which involved the Times; a separate case involving former C.I.A. officer Jeffrey Sterling and Times reporter James Risen; and now the Sanger case. In the Risen and Sanger cases, the Justice investigations have involved reporting done for books, in addition to reporting done for the Times. My reading from far outside is that the Times editors have done very well handling these dilemmas. It's a complicated responsibility, as I can testify from experience at the Washington Post. I'm sure there are at least a few calls the editors would like to have back, but overall I think they've made courageous, responsible decisions in the public interest.

  • Who do you think might be indicted?

I don't know.

  • Do you think such indictments would be justified?

Almost certainly not, particularly if they involve heavy charges under the Espionage Act or other similar statutes, as Justice has done in previous cases. As my story about the Kiriakou case outlined, leak prosecutions are highly selective and they fail to take into account the institutionalized failures and hypocrisy of the government's management of classified information. David Pozen, a law professor at Columbia University, estimates in a forthcoming Harvard Law Review article that fewer than three in a thousand leak violations are actually prosecuted, and the true percentage, if all leaks of classified information could be counted reliably, is almost certainly much closer to zero. These kinds of prosecutions -- aimed, apparently at creating a deterrent effect -- in an atmosphere of such laxity just can't be justified as public policy, even if they are permissible as a matter of law.

  • What does all this say to you about how Washington (both in politics and journalism) works these days?

The Kiriakou case teases some of that out -- it's a very polluted environment. There's a lot of opportunism from all sides. That's why they call Washington a swamp. But I think the single biggest factor -- and a factor that could be fixed -- is the broken system that over-classifies government information by orders of magnitude. Until the government can credibly distinguish a real secret from a phony or artificial one, prosecutions of leakers will always seem selective and without adequate foundation.

Pete Souza/Flickr

The Best Defense

The FP transcript (Xth and last): What the last 9 segments tell us about the state of the American confrontation with Iran

The Best Defense is on Winter Break until the new year. Until then, here are some favorites from the past year. This post originally ran on Mar. 26, 2013.

[Here are Parts I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, and IX.]

Ricks: We are almost out of time. Speaking of mutually shared decisions, the U.S. government is probably going to face one this year on Iran. How has everything we've been talking about shaped how we are going to be thinking about Iran down the road?

First David, then Michèle.

Crist: Well I think it's all interrelated -- issues in Afghanistan, issues in Iraq, all affect how we look at Iran and how we are positioned to be able to do something about Iran. I think it's all interrelated. Lessons I think have been institutionalized at least within senior leaders on some of the problems we had in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially second- and third-order effects. What are the consequences of different actions we take? What are consequences of conflict in general? Is regime change a viable option? Isn't it a viable option? If not, then how do we...? I mean, all that is in the background of all the discussions. And I think it's been very healthy in many ways.

Ricks: One of the issues that we've been talking about is the quality of civil-military relations and straightforward, candid, honest advice from generals to civilian leaders -- for which we have apparently just seen General Mattis quietly fired. [Ricks note: I should have said "pushed out early."]

Crist: On the record I won't comment on General Mattis's views.

I will say and I can say this with a certain honesty since I've helped draft many of the memos: He has been very candid on what his views of what needs to be done. I haven't seen anything like the Rumsfeldian approach to stifling alternative views, and so as a consequence while...And some people in the U.S. military -- maybe the political leadership isn't as receptive as they would like on authority issues and some other response...the dialogue is there, and frankly a lot of it gets to these ideas of what I have always thought of as one of the intangibles where you have breakdown in discourse between civilian and military leadership is as you say trust. And a lot of it is personality based. Just personalities of the individual players and how they personally get along, as well as concerns of political leadership.

Ricks: And you have seen a trusting, candid exchange?

Crist: I have from my level, absolutely. And I've sat in many -- not as many as Michèle and some of the others here -- but a number of meetings with senior leaders on both sides of it. And I have seen it be quite candid.

Ricks: My impression is that the Obama administration has been almost afraid of Centcom under Mattis and Harward -- the mad-dog symptom with two incredibly aggressive guys. But I see Michèle shaking her head. Michèle, jump in.

Flournoy: I would say of all the issue areas that I was exposed to in the deputies committees process, there was none where we took a more deliberate, strategic, questioning, and very candid approach than Iran. And it really started back -- this goes a few years back now when it was started up when Gates was still secretary of defense -- and I think the thought that was put into exactly what words the president says to describe our objective in Iran: Is it "prevent"? Is it "contain"? That was debated, the consequences downstream of choosing one versus the other, multiple senior leader seminars, war games looking at different options, going down the road of different scenarios, very close partnership with the military in actually setting the theater so that we are now communicating a degree of deterrence to back up the policy of sanctions and negotiations.

So I actually think on Iran, probably more than on any other issue that I've seen, it's been very strategic, very comprehensive. There's no idea that you can't bring to the table. There's no idea that hasn't been debated. And people may have very strong views and disagree. But this is not one where -- this was one where there was a real constant coming back to what are our interests? What are our objectives? How do we make sure we are applying rigor and not just going down the road towards confrontation with no limits or no boundaries or no sense of what we are trying to achieve?

Crist: I would add one more point in having looked at U.S. strategy for a long time on Iran. One thing that I found interesting that has evolved over the last few years that I haven't seen earlier is looking even beyond the nuclear issue. What is our long-term relationship with this country? Are we long-term adversaries? If so, how is that going to play out across the region? And how do we counteract that? And also, are there areas, I think, which despite the engagement piece, seemed to have died off, there has been a lot of thought given -- are there areas where there is mutual cooperation? And what will that lead to long term? Can we have maybe not rapprochement but some kind of détente with Iran?

Ricks: So can we start to get Putin to be aggressive again and drive Iran into our hands?

Crist: Yeah, it's tough because in my personal opinion we are for a host of reasons adversaries in the region. We have two different strategic views of what we want out of it.

But the issue is bigger than just the nuclear issue. The nuclear issue is a symptom, more than a cause, of our problems.

THE END... -- or is it?