Who Leaked the Drone Memo?

Who Leaked the Drone Memo? February 11, 2013

I definitely would like to know who leaked the memo that has an abbreviated version of the Obama administration’s legal justification for the drone strike program, a memo so badly written and reasoned that you can see now why the DOJ has refused to make it public. Jack Shafer has some ideas:

Who would have surrendered such a sensitive document about the president’s “kill list” to NBC News?

It’s a valid question, and a little bit silly at the same time. Not to diminish the intrepid reporting of Isikoff — who should be made the grand marshal of the next Tournament of Roses Parade for his scoop — but Washington often leaks in directions to further stoke policy fires that are already burning. (See this taxonomy of leaks compiled by Stephen Hess.) Such a Washington fire has been burning for many months, with Congress demanding that the Obama administration explain its targeted killings of U.S. citizens. Yesterday, before the Isikoff story broke, 11 senators sent the president a formal request that any and all legal opinions devised by the White House about the targeting of citizens be forwarded to the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.

This request makes the senators, or members of their staffs, prime suspects of the leak. Isikoff’s story does not discourage that interpretation. He reports that the leaked white paper was given to “members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees in June by administration officials” and that a “source with access to the white paper, which is not classified, provided a copy to NBC News.” Like any good journalist, Isikoff squirts ink in the water to help camouflage a possible source by quoting the boilerplate outrage of the deputy legal director of the ACLU about the white paper. The ACLU has sued the administration for the memos, Isikoff reports, leaving the careful reader to speculate that perhaps the ACLU obtained the white paper and gave it to him.

The timing of the leak inspires further speculation. President Obama’s nominee for CIA director, John Brennan, goes to Capitol Hill on Thursday for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Depending on how you torque it, the leaked white paper arguably gives drone-architect Brennan a little breathing room by blunting the demands for the classified documents. That’s the sentiment behind a statement issued by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today, in which she says the white paper (and other documents and briefings) have allowed the Intelligence Committee, which she chairs, “to conduct appropriate and probing oversight into the use of lethal force.” Or, the leak could enrage other senators who feel that the administration hasn’t been sufficiently candid with them, and prompt them to draw Brennan and the administration into a memo showdown. As Josh Gerstein reported yesterday in Politico, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, had previously promised to press Brennan on the targeted killing policy.

I find it difficult to believe that the administration leaked it to provide cover to Brennan; if they did, it’s a very bad miscalculation. All it does is draw more attention to the fact that Brennan was the one who oversaw the drone strike program and, more importantly, that the legal rationale for it is rather ridiculous. A source in the Senate is much more likely, I think. And I’m sure that if the Obama administration can figure out who it was, that person will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, as they’ve done with every other whistleblower.

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  • “And I’m sure that if the Obama administration can figure out who it was, that person will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, as they’ve done with every other whistleblower.”

    Oh, hell, Ed Brayton, how are they supposed to be The Most Transparent Administration in History® if they allow people to stay hidden, outside the light of Justice. How?!

  • wscott

    Obama’s record on prosecuting whistleblowers is abomidable, yes. But prosecute a Senator? I doubt Obama really wants that kind of shitstorm. No, I’m not saying Senators *should* be above the law; I just don’t think it’ll happen.

  • jamessweet

    The administration leak hypothesis is interesting, not because I think it’s likely (it’s not) but because it’s not utterly implausible: It’s semi-believable only because the revelation really isn’t providing that much traction for the drone opposition. The administration could *conceivably* have figured that extra fire-stoking was a small price to pay for whatever political cover they hoped to achieve. I wouldn’t bet on it, but the fact that it’s borderline plausible really says something about the impunity the administration enjoys in operating the drone campaign.

    @wscott: It was almost certainly not directly leaked by a senator; she or he would have had one of her staffers do the dirty work. The staffer could be the scapegoat.