What is happening with all these breaches of our national security? Why are intelligence professionals talking so much—divulging secret and sensitive information for all the world to see, and for our adversaries to contemplate?
In the past few months we have read that the U.S. penetrated Al Qaeda in Yemen and foiled a terror plot; that the Stuxnet cyberworm, which caused chaos in the Iranian nuclear program, was a joint Israeli-American operation; and that President Obama personally approves every name on an expanding “kill list” of those targeted and removed from life by unmanned drones. According to the New York Times, Mr. Obama pores over “suspects’ biographies” in “what one official calls ‘the macabre ‘baseball cards’ of an unconventional war.”
From David Sanger’s new book, “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power,” we learn that Stuxnet was “the most sophisticated, complex cyberatack the United States had ever launched.” Its secret name was “Olympic Games.” America and Israel developed the “malicious software” together, the U.S. at Fort Meade, Md., where it keeps “computer warriors,” Israel at a military intelligence agency it “barely acknowledges exists.”
The Pentagon has built a replica of Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant. The National Security Agency “routinely taps the ISI’s cell phones”—that’s the Pakistani intelligence agency. A “secret” U.S. program helps Pakistan protect its nuclear facilities; it involves fences and electronic padlocks. Still, insurgents bent on creating a dirty bomb, if they have a friend inside, can slip out “a few grams of nuclear material at a time” and outwit security systems targeted at major theft. In any case, there’s a stockpile of highly enriched uranium sitting “near an aging research reactor in Pakistan.” It could be used for several dirty bombs.
It’s a good thing our enemies can’t read. Wait, they can! They can download all this onto their iPads at a café in Islamabad.
It’s all out there now. Mr. Sanger’s sources are, apparently, high administration officials, whose diarrhetic volubility marks a real breakthrough in the history of indiscretion.
What are they thinking? That in the age of Wikileaks the White House itself should be one big Wikileak?
More from the Sanger book: During the search for Osama bin Laden, American intelligence experts had a brilliant idea. Bin Laden liked to make videotapes to rouse his troops and threaten the West. Why not flood part of Pakistan with new digital cameras, each with a “unique signature” that would allow its signals to be tracked? The signal could function as a beacon for a drone. Agents got the new cameras into the distribution chain of Peshawar shops. The plan didn’t catch Osama, because he wasn’t in that area. But “traceable digital cameras are still relied on by the CIA . . . and remain highly classified.”
Well, they were.
There was a Pakistani doctor named Shakil Afridi who was sympathetic to America. He became involved in a scheme to try and get the DNA of Osama’s family. He “and a team of nurses” were hired by the U.S. to administer hepatitis B vaccinations throughout Abbottabad. The vaccinations were real. Dr. Afridi got inside Osama’s compound but never got to vaccinate any bin Ladens.
In the days after bin Laden was killed, the doctor was picked up by Pakistani agents and accused of cooperating with the Americans. He was likely tortured. He’s in prison now, convicted of conspiring against the state.
No word yet on the nurses, but stand by.
Mr. Sanger writes that President Obama “will go down in history as the man who dramatically expanded” the use of drones. They are cheaper than boots on the ground, more efficient. But some of those who operate the unmanned bombers are getting upset. They track victims for days. They watch them play with their children. “It freaks you out,” a former drone operator told Mr. Sanger. “You feel less like a pilot than a sniper.”
During the Arab Spring, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was insistent that Mr. Obama needed to stick with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, even, Mr. Sanger reports, “if he started shooting protestors in the streets.”
King Abdullah must be glad he called. Maybe he’ll call less in the future.
All of this constitutes part of what California Sen. Dianne Feinstein calls an “avalanche of leaks.” After she read the Stuxnet story in the Times, she was quoted as saying “my heart stopped” as she considered possible repercussions.
Why is this happening? In part because at our highest level in politics, government and journalism, Americans continue to act as if we are talking only to ourselves. There is something narcissistic in this: Only our dialogue counts, no one else is listening, and what can they do about it if they are? There is something childish in it: Knowing secrets is cool, and telling them is cooler. But we are talking to the world. Should it know how, when and with whose assistance we gather intelligence? Should it know our methods? Will this make us safer?
Liberally quoted in the Sanger book, and in Dan Kaidman’s “Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency,” is the White House national security adviser, Thomas Donilon. When I was a child, there was a doll called Chatty Cathy. You pulled a string in her back, and she babbled inanely. Tom Donilon appears to be the Chatty Cathy of the American intelligence community.
It is good Congress has become involved. They wonder if the leaks have been directed, encouraged or authorized, and by whom. One way to get at that is the classic legal question: Who benefits?
That is not a mystery. In all these stories, it is the president and his campaign that benefit. The common theme in the leaks is how strong and steely Mr. Obama is. He’s tough but fair, bold yet judicious, surprisingly willing to do what needs to be done. He hears everyone out, asks piercing questions, doesn’t flinch.
He is Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer.
And he is up for re-election and fighting the constant perception that he’s weak, a one-man apology tour whose foreign policy is unclear, unsure, and lacking in strategic depth.
There’s something in the leaks that is a hallmark of the Obama White House. They always misunderstand the country they seek to spin, and they always think less of it than it deserves. Why do the president’s appointees think the picture of him with a kill list in his hand makes him look good? He sits and personally decides who to kill?
Americans don’t think of their presidents like that. And they don’t want to.
National security doesn’t exist to help presidents win elections. It’s not a plaything or a tool to advance one’s prospects.
After the killing of bin Laden, members of the administration, in a spirit of triumphalism, began giving briefings and interviews in which they said too much. One of the adults in the administration, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, reportedly went to Mr. Donilon’s office. “I have a new strategic communications approach to recommend,” he said. What? asked Mr. Donilon.
“Shut the [blank] up,” Mr. Gates said.
Still excellent advice, and at this point more urgently needed.