- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 28, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There are many ways to introduce a controversial topic - even about the most private tool of public diplomacy and its role in President Obama’s troop decision on the Afghanistan war.

But first I need to make sure I don’t make the same mistake an aspiring television news host made while trying to switch subjects in midstream, so to speak.

We were taping a pilot for yet another Washington news-talk show, years ago. The host was an effervescent woman well-known in Washington but rather new to television. The performing pundits consisted of the wise and witty Mark Shields and me. We’d droned through Topic One and were primed to switch to Topic Two - about how a secret CIA operation was just revealed in a newspaper scoop. That’s when the host turned to me and said, most earnestly:

“Well, Marty, take a leak—”

Suddenly I was surrounded by silence. My pal Shields bailed on me, biting his lip while his eyes danced with silent laughter. Our host, unblinking, intently awaited my response. I said something to the effect that I felt just fine - and speaking of that, how about that big CIA revelation? - and off we went. (No surprise, our program never got airborne.)

Today’s topic is: Leaks. Leaks happen in every ship of state. Leaks are decried by every captain of every ship of state. And yet, sometimes a well-placed leak can actually keep a ship of state afloat.

All of this is worth noting because leaks - carefully whispered by anonymous sources with eponymous motives that correlate to the building in which they work or the party in which they are registered - have played major roles in Mr. Obama’s troop decisions.

First, was the late summer anonymous leak of the request from America’s top general in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, for 44,000 more troops. Who leaked it? Consider what it accomplished - suddenly the president seemed cornered in his Oval Office. Most Republicans began demanding he fulfill his general’s request - now. Liberal Democrats began mounting a counterforce pressure, opposing more troops, especially given the corrupt Afghan regime of President Hamid Karzai. Troop security and safety became mixed with politics.

On Nov. 12, anonymous sources with seemingly opposite motives hit the daily double of leaks - lead story in the New York Times and The Washington Post: The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry, had written two classified cables voicing reservations about sending more troops given the Karzai administration’s rampant corruption and gross mismanagement. Mr. Eikenberry is no garden variety ambassador - he is also a distinguished Army general and was a West Point classmate of both Gen. McChrystal and his boss, Gen. David Petraeus.

Perhaps you think that double leak was mere coincidence (Perhaps you are still awaiting a visit from the Tooth Fairy.) Then again, perhaps you remembered that just three days earlier, Mr. Karzai had given a bizarre interview to PBS Margaret Warner on the Jim Lehrer Newshour in which he repeatedly suggested America doesn’t really care about his country - for which U.S. troops are fighting and dying. That infuriated Mr. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, et al.

So perhaps you thought Team Obama sanctioned that leak. But wait: on Nov. 18, in an interview with CBS News’ Chip Reid, Mr. Obama noted that while Mr. Gates had expressed anger at the leaks, “I think I’m angrier than Bob Gates about it…. For people to be releasing information during the course of deliberations, where we haven’t made final decisions yet, I think is not appropriate.”

“Is it a firing offense?” asked Mr. Reid. “Absolutely,” Mr. Obama replied.

So we cannot know for sure who authorized those unauthorized leaks. Not until the next anonymous source leaves a calling card. Or maybe whispers a clue while slipping a dollar bill under our pillow.

Meanwhile, the USS Ship of State, fortified by its leaks, sails onward into war.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

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