What Will Obama’s Leak Prosecutors Find?

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Larry Downing / Reuters

President Barack Obama walks up the stairs towards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington before departing for San Francisco, June 6, 2012.

When do the biggest scandals of a Presidency start to become public? Sometimes it’s when the President publicly commits himself to the truth: think of Bill Clinton’s request to Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint a special counsel to investigate Whitewater, or George W. Bush’s declaration after CIA officer Valerie Plame was outed by journalist Bob Novak that, “If someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my Administration.”

So the ears of some reporters perked up last Friday when Barack Obama was asked by veteran reporter David Jackson about Republican allegations Obama’s team had leaked details of national security operations for political advantage. Obama denied the accusation and said, “If we can root out folks who have leaked, they will suffer consequences. In some case, it’s criminal.” Hours later, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the appointment of two U.S. attorneys to investigate the leaks.

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Are we headed for a new Washington investigation that could expose wrongdoing in the Obama Administration, or has the President successfully cut the legs out from under a politically motivated GOP attack?

It’s difficult to get past the political theater, which started in the Obama camp earlier this spring. Vice President Joe Biden, former press secretary Robert Gibbs and others went out of their way to score political points during the coverage of the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death. The spin culminated in the release of a video touting Obama’s toughness and suggesting that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney wouldn’t have gone after bin Laden. Republicans decried the politicization of the bin Laden killing.

In the following weeks, a series of news articles reported details of what appeared to be classified information and collectively suggested Obama had been unusually aggressive on national security issues. In response, last week, Senator John McCain of Arizona said, “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that these recent leaks of highly classified information, all of which have the effect of making the President look strong and decisive on national security in the middle of his re-election campaign, have a deeper political motivation.”

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Obama loyalists privately say Republicans are trying to diminish Obama’s national security credentials in an election year. “They’re trying to take the narrative away,” says one Administration official, “They don’t want to talk about what we’re doing on national security.” Holder’s appointment of two seasoned prosecutors was intended to end the debate.

But once you turn a prosecutor loose, the politics no longer drive the story: the investigation does. That could cuts both ways for the Obama Administration.

On the one hand, the President, the Justice Department and Obama’s campaign can respond to every politically motivated allegation about national security leaks by saying an investigation is underway–a surefire conversation ender. Further, prosecutors’ work is time-consuming, and they tend not to make public their early interviews with potential witnesses. That means there may not be a lot of news for politically-motivated Romney backers to latch onto before November. In that sense, Obama may have bought himself a free pass through the election.

But it’s hard to look at some of the controversial material and not see potential problems for members of the administration. Daniel Klaidman’s meticulously reported book, Kill or Capture, which was excerpted in Newsweek, gets deep inside Administration deliberations over sensitive national security decisions and seems to be very highly sourced. For example, throughout the book, private reactions to situations by top officials are reported, and some of those officials appear to have been present for discussions of classified information detailed in the book.

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Could leaks of those details have been politically motivated? Generally speaking, that’s not the first, or even the second or third, reason people leak classified information. Most of the time, they leak to win an argument, to make themselves look good or to advance some other individual interest. Public servants know the law, and they don’t normally risk breaking it for someone else’s benefit, even their boss’s.

But for prosecutors, the first consideration is whether a crime has been committed, not why. Which means whatever the motivation, some high-level Administration officials may eventually find themselves in trouble: subpoenaed, fired or worse.

Holder’s choice of prosecutors to investigate the leaks appears to have helped the Administration’s case in the short term: Ronald C. Machen, the United States attorney for the District of Columbia, has been systematically busting allegedly corrupt D.C. officials over the last year, while Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. Attorney from Maryland is a George W. Bush appointee known as a no-nonsense case-maker. The GOP head of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Mike Rogers, called the investigation, “a good start, maybe.”

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