If Attorney General Eric Holder’s goal was to minimize broadcast network news coverage when he chose late Friday evening to announce a criminal investigation into how damaging national security secrets were released to the New York Times, the media have certainly played along.
Holder announced the investigation after the East Coast feeds of Friday’s ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts. While each of the networks included some discussion on their Saturday and Sunday broadcasts, including ABC’s This Week and CBS’s Face the Nation (NBC’s Meet the Press was pre-empted by tennis), by Monday the networks had already lost interest.
Monday night, none of the Big Three bothered to tell viewers who might have missed news of the investigation over the weekend; CBS This Morning and NBC’s Today raised the topic on Monday morning (the latter a segment in which, as NewsBusters’ Kyle Drennen caught, MSNBC host Chris Hayes claimed “we need more leaks and not less.”) And on Tuesday, only CBS This Morning included the news in their political coverage, a round-up report from White House correspondent Norah O’Donnell.
UPDATE, June 13: Both ABC and CBS again avoided touching the leak story on their Tuesday night newscasts, while NBC gave the controversy just over a minute of a two-minute report by Kelly O'Donnell about a contentious congressional hearing with Attorney General Holder. O'Donnell played it as a partisan dispute: "Republicans leveled a series of accusations — the latest over national security leaks that Republicans allege could involve senior Obama administration officials."
That’s a far cry from how the networks hyperventilated in late September 2003 when the Justice Department announced a criminal probe into the identity of the “two senior administration officials” who told the late columnist Robert Novak the name of CIA employee Valerie Plame. As MRC’s Brent Baker recounted at the time, ABC, CBS and NBC all led their broadcasts with the story for several nights in a row, with commentary that fueled the notion that this was a case of partisan White House operatives who were putting politics ahead of national security.
■ Sunday, September 28, 2003: ABC and CBS led their evening broadcasts with word of a potential Justice Department investigation. (NBC Nightly News led with the California recall election, but included a full story on the leak probe as well.) Then-CBS anchor John Roberts breathlessly intoned: “If those allegations are true, whoever is responsible for the leak could be headed to jail for ten years.”
■ Monday, September 29, 2003: All three networks led with the story for a second night. CBS’s Dan Rather: “Under increasing pressure, the FBI and the Justice Department counter-espionage division now say they are investigating the leak of a CIA operative’s name, a federal crime that could endanger the agent and compromise her contacts....”
NBC’s Tom Brokaw that same night: “The big question ricocheting through the halls of Congress, the White House, the CIA, the Justice Department and newsrooms is this: Did administration officials deliberately blow the cover of a CIA agent as a measure of revenge against her husband?”
■ Tuesday, September 30, 2003: All three networks again led with the leak investigation. ABC’s Peter Jennings began with the words "Criminal Investigation" plastered beneath a picture of President Bush: “Good evening, everyone. The Justice Department told the White House last night, and the country learned about it this morning. There is a full-scale criminal investigation under way in Washington into who leaked a CIA officer's name to the press.”
■ Wednesday, October 1, 2003: While all three networks again produced full stories on the case, only NBC made it their top story. Correspondent Andrea Mitchell found it newsworthy that “even” Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton would want an independent investigation of the Republican White House: “Even Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who fiercely fought having a special counsel investigate her husband’s White House, today demanded one for George Bush.”
That case was eventually handed over to an independent counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald, who quickly determined that State Department official Richard Armitage had originally supplied Valerie Plame’s name to Novak, then confirmed by White House advisor Karl Rove. Neither man faced any charges, although Fitzgerald did prosecute Vice President Cheney’s chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, for lying during the course of the (lengthy) investigation.
In the case of the Obama White House, the concern is that the President’s staff divulged classified national security information to journalists for the purpose of facilitating favorable news stories. The two most recent examples — a May 29 New York Times story by Jo Becker and Scott Shane on how the President personally selects suspected terrorists to be killed in drone attacks; and a June 1 Times story by David Sanger revealing how the U.S. used a computer virus to attack Iran’s nuclear project — both included behind-the-scenes accounts from what the authors describe as top Obama national security officials.
Yet the concern the networks showed in the Plame case is far less evident this time. On ABC’s This Week, host George Stephanopoulos was as gentle as he could be when he asked Obama campaign official David Axelrod about the stories: “I take the President’s point that this was not for political purposes. But if you look at these articles that were in the New York Times... in both cases they quote members of the President’s national security team who were in the room. So somebody who was in the room with the President was giving out some of this information or at least discussing classified information.”
On last Wednesday’s CBS This Morning (before the announcement of the criminal probe), co-host Charlie Rose challenged Senator John McCain on whether Team Obama was really to blame: “You’re suggesting it was leaked by the White House for political purposes, as I understand you, and David Sanger of the New York Times, the reporter who just wrote the book, has said that the Stuxnet explosion of information did not come from the White House. It came from other sources at the time. And that began to happen several months ago.”
McCain accurately pointed out that the upper echelons of the Obama White House had obviously facilitated Sanger’s story: “They confirmed those as being factual. All they had to do was say, this is classified information and we won’t discuss it. And administration officials at the highest levels confirmed these facts. They obviously shouldn’t have done that.”
As Sanger himself pointed out on CNBC’s Kudlow Report Monday night, the administration was given a chance to object to the stories and did not: “Before we publish anything, we go to the government and we say, ‘Look, here is what we have, okay. If there are concerns about ongoing operations, lives that could be at stake, let’s discuss it now before anything’s published so we can deal with those issues....At no point did the government come to us and ask us not to run this story. They did have things they asked us to go, be careful about, and I think you’ll discover we were careful about them.”
Last week, Politico media writer Dylan Byers noted: “The fact that the White House has not raised complaints about the Times’ reports further stokes congressional concern that the administration was somehow involved in leaking the stories.”
As has been widely discussed for a week, both Times’ stories contain numerous references to “senior administration sources,” or “aides” to Obama for key details, including dialogue from classified meetings. A content analysis of both reports, however, shows in stark relief how the articles were told almost entirely from the perspective of Obama insiders, both past and present.
Combined, the two stories present a total of 52 different descriptions of the sources cited. This includes 12 individuals cited by name in the May 29 Becker/Shane piece — nine current or former Obama officials talking about the administration’s “kill list” program, plus two Bush-era officials and GOP Senator Saxby Chambliss reacting to what Becker and Shane were reporting. That piece also included 24 additional references to unnamed officials, all with descriptions that point back to Obama’s national security team.
The June 1 piece by Sanger has 16 different source descriptions, only one of which is a named individual (Bush-era CIA Director Michael Haydon). The rest are unnamed individuals, most of which are obviously top Obama administration officials.
Added together, 92% of the source identifications in those two stories are of past or present Obama officials. Looking at just the descriptions used by the three Times reporters, it is impossible to believe that these stories were not deeply facilitated by the top echelons of President Obama’s national security team.
As a public service, here, in order of appearance, are all of the source identifications provided in the May 29, 2012 New York Times story by Jo Becker and Scott Shane:
1. “...according to two officials present.” [at a January 19, 2010 counter-terrorism meeting]
2. “...said Thomas E. Donilon, his [President Obama’s] National Security Advisor.”
3. “In interviews with the New York Times, three dozen of his [President Obama’s] current and former advisors described....”
4. “...a colleague [of Mr. Obama’s ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron P. Munter] said.”
5. “Dennis C. Blair, director of national intelligence until he was fired in 2010, said...”
6. “William M. Daley, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff in 2011, said...”
7. “....Mr. [Attorney General Eric] Holder recalled.”
8. “...said Jeh C. Johnson, a campaign advisor and now general counsel of the Defense Department.”
9. “...a top White house advisor recounted.”
10. “the President tightened standards, aides say...”
11. “...counter-terrorism officials said.”
12. “...said Michael V. Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under President George W. Bush.”
13. “...said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.”
14. “...in a recent interview, a senior administration official said...”
15. “But in interviews, three former senior officials expressed disbelief...” | One called it....” | “...the official said.”
16. “[President Obama’s first National Security Advisor] General [David L.] Jones said the President and his aides had assumed...”
17. “...said an administration official who has watched him [President Obama] closely.” | “...the same administration official said.”
18. “...asked one participant [in a weekly video conference to select targets for the kill list], illustrating the spirit of the exchanges.” | “...the official said.”
19. “...according to several people who have worked closely with him [President Obama].”
20. “Since becoming the State Department’s top lawyer, Mr. [Harold H.] Koh said...”
21. “...other aides [to President Obama] say.”
22. “...Mr. [President Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor John. O.] Brennan said in an interview.”
23. “...said Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the intelligence committee.”
24. “...according to interviews with both administration and Pakistani sources.”
25. “...said a senior intelligence official” [talking about a meeting in which President Obama authorized the killing of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud].
26. “...aides [to President Obama] say.”
27. “...according to a participant [in a meeting with the President following the Christmas Day 2009 bomb plot].”
28. “...said Michael E. Leiter, then director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center.”
29. “...fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said bolstered al Qaeda.”
30. “The sloppy strike shook Mr. Obama and Mr. Brennan, officials said.”
31. “...said one senior official.” [talking about the C.I.A.’s criteria for targeting suspects]
32. “...according to participants” [in a meeting in which the President declared ‘We are not going to war with Yemen.’]
33. “Officials [familiar with new Defense Department criteria for targeting suspects] say...”
34. “If the President had any qualms about this momentous step, aides say he did not share them.”
35. “Mr. Obama was heartened, aides say...”
36. “John B. Bellinger, a top national security lawyer under the Bush administration, said...”
The source identifications provided in the June 1 piece by David Sanger:
1. “...according to participants in the [cyber-weapon] program.”
2. “...according to members of the President’s national security team who were in the room.”
3. “...based on interviews over the past 18 months with current and former American, European and Israeli officials involved in the program, as well as a range of outside experts. None would allow their names to be used because the effort remains highly classified, and parts of it continue to this day.”
4. “...American officials say.”
5. “Mr. Obama, according to participants in the many Situation Room meetings on [the program code-named] Olympic Games....”
6, 7. “...one of his [President Obama’s] aides said. Another said that the...”
8. “The only way to convince them [Israeli officials], several officials said in interviews, was to have them deeply involved in every aspect of the program.”
9. “...Michael V. Hayden, the former chief of staff of the C.I.A., said, declining to describe what he knew of these attacks when he was in office.”
10. “...one of the architects of the [cyber-attack] plan said.”
11. “...one of the architects of the early attack [on Iran] said.” | “...the participant in the attacks said.”
12. “...one official said.” [talking about how the Iranians over-reacted to the damage to their centrifuges.
13. “...a senior administration official said.”
14. “Mr. Obama, according to officials in the room...” [referring to a meeting where C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta, Deputy C.I.A. Director Michael J. Morell and General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff briefed President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden]. | “...according to the officials.”
15. “...as one administration official put it.”
16. “...one former intelligence official said.”