The Obama administration provided a New York Times reporter exclusive access to a range of high-level national security officials for a book that divulged highly classified information on a U.S. cyberwar on Iran’s nuclear program, internal State Department emails show.
The information in the 2012 book by chief Washington correspondent David E. Sanger has been the subject of a yearlong Justice Department criminal investigation: The FBI is hunting for those who leaked details to Mr. Sanger about a U.S.-Israeli covert cyberoperation to infect Iran’s nuclear facilities with a debilitating computer worm known as Stuxnet.
A New York Times story adapted from the book, “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power,” quotes participants in secret White House meetings discussing plans to unleash Stuxnet on Iran.
The scores of State Department emails from the fall of 2011 to the spring of 2012 do not reveal which officials told Mr. Sanger, but they do show an atmosphere of cooperation within the administration for a book generally favorable toward, but not uncritical of, President Obama. For example:
“I’m getting a bit concerned about the pace of our interviews — or lack of pace, to be more precise — for the book,” Mr. Sanger said in an email Oct. 30, 2011, to Michael Hammer, a senior State Department public affairs official. “The White House is steaming away; I’ve seen [National Security Adviser Thomas E.] Donilon many times and a raft of people below. Doing well at the Pentagon. But on the list I sent you starting on Sept. 12 we’ve scheduled nothing, and chapters are getting into final form.”
Mr. Sanger’s book debuted in June 2012 and brought an immediate call from Republicans to investigate the leaks. They charged that administration officials jeopardized an ongoing secret cyberattack by tipping off Iran’s hard-line Islamic regime about war plans.
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They also charged that Obama aides were leaking sensitive materials on other issues, such as the Navy SEAL-CIA raid to kill Osama bin Laden, to burnish Mr. Obama’s credentials as commander in chief as the 2012 election approached.
The nonprofit Freedom Watch acquired the State Department emails via a Freedom of Information Act request filed days after the book was published. Larry Klayman, its director, said State at first had told him it did not have any documents. He then filed suit in federal court.
In December, U.S. District Court Judge Robert L. Wilkins ordered State to turn over emails relating to its cooperation with Mr. Sanger.
Officials line up
“When you read the totality of those documents, it’s a super-close relationship they are furthering with Sanger,” Mr. Klayman said. “They were literally force-feeding him.”
He said State has yet to provide transcripts of the Sanger interviews.
“I think the thrust of this is this requires a significant investigation,” Mr. Klayman said, adding that he has provided the emails to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
A State Department spokesman did not respond to emails from The Washington Times requesting comment.
In one email, a public affairs official said Mr. Sanger wanted to discuss “Cybersecurity — particularly if there’s a legal framework being developed on the offensive side.” Stuxnet would be an example of an offensive cyberweapon.
Mr. Sanger’s nudging seemed to do the trick. Over the next several months, Mr. Hammer, the senior public affairs official, arranged interviews with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and a roster of senior aides.
By March 2012, Mr. Sanger had spoken with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns; Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sullivan, who is now Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s national security adviser; Robert Einhorn, then a special adviser on arms control; Harold Hongju Koh, State’s legal adviser; and others.
In December 2011, Mr. Hammer sent an email summarizing Mr. Sanger’s reporting and reproducing a story from the previous month headlined “America’s Deadly Dynamics with Iran,” which reported on the Stuxnet computer worm.
It is not unusual for authors to request and sometimes win access to administration officials. Mr. Sanger’s access, however, is notable in that its subsequent disclosures prompted an FBI investigation in which agents have interviewed government officials.
The worm on the loose
Mr. Sanger wrote a June 1, 2012, article on Stuxnet that was adapted from his book, which debuted later that week. In the story, he quoted “participants” in White House meetings on whether to continue attacking Iran with Stuxnet, which somehow had broken free into the Internet.
“At a tense meeting in the White House Situation Room within days of the worm’s ‘escape,’ Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, Leon E. Panetta, considered whether America’s most ambitious attempt to slow the progress of Iran’s nuclear efforts had been fatally compromised,” the story said.
“Should we shut this thing down?” Mr. Obama asked, according to members of the president’s national security team who were in the room.”
Republicans said those passages alone are evidence that Obama aides broke the law by publicly disclosing a covert program.
With the story and book in print, State Department public affairs on June 7 sent to department officials a transcript of a floor speech delivered by Sen. John McCain that week. The Arizona Republican accused the administration of deliberately leaking secrets to portray Mr. Obama as a “strong leader on national security issues” in an election year.
“What price did the administration apparently pay to proliferate such a presidential persona highly valued in an election year?” he said. “Access. Access to senior administration officials who appear to have served as anonymous sources divulging extremely sensitive military and intelligence information and operations.”
‘Drones and cyber’
Citing the book, Mr. McCain said: “The administration officials discussed a most highly classified operation that is both highly classified and still ongoing, an operation that was clearly one of the most tightly held national security secrets in our country until now.”
Asked on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on June 3, 2012, whether the administration leaked to him to bolster the president’s image, Mr. Sanger said:
“I spent a year working the story from the bottom up, and then went to the administration and told them what I had. Then they had to make some decisions about how much they wanted to talk about it.
“All that you read about this being deliberate leaks out of the White House wasn’t my experience. Maybe it is in other cases,” he said. “I’m sure the political side of the White House probably likes reading about the president acting with drones and cyber and so forth. National security side has got very mixed emotions about it because these are classified programs.”
Said Mr. McCain: “I don’t know how one could draw any conclusion but that senior members of this administration in the national security arena have either leaked or confirmed information of the most highly classified and sensitive nature.”
On June 5, The New York Times published a review of the Sanger book by Thomas Ricks, an author and former reporter for The Washington Post.
“Mr. Sanger clearly has enjoyed great access to senior White House officials, most notably to Thomas Donilon, the national security adviser,” Mr. Ricks wrote. “Mr. Donilon, in effect, is the hero of the book, as well as the commenter of record on events. He leads the team that goes to Israel and spends ‘five hours wading through the intelligence in the basement of the prime minister’s residence.’”
Three days later, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that he had appointed two U.S. attorneys to investigate leaks, including the Stuxnet disclosures.
White House press secretary Jay Carney took offense to Mr. McCain’s speech.
“Any suggestion that this administration has authorized intentional leaks of classified information for political gain is grossly irresponsible,” he said.
A ‘target’ in the probe
In May, The New York Times reported: “The investigation into reporting by David E. Sanger of The Times, about efforts to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program, appears to be one of the most active inquiries.”
In June, NBC News reported that the FBI had zeroed in on one of the nation’s highest-ranking military officers at the time that Mr. Sanger was researching his book in 2011.
NBC said that retired Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one of Mr. Obama’s closest military advisers, was a “target” in the probe — a designation that often means the Justice Department plans to indict the person.
Gen. Cartwright retired in August 2011.
Mr. Donilon, the national security adviser, submitted his resignation in June and left the post last month.
More than any previous president, Mr. Obama has aggressively gone after leakers — in this case possibly members of his own inner circle.
The Justice Department took the unusual step of collecting data on phone calls to and from the Washington bureau of The Associated Press in an effort to find who leaked information about a foiled terrorist attack.
The Justice Department has charged two former CIA employees and one former National Security Agency worker with providing secrets to journalists. In all three of those cases, the FBI acquired the “smoking gun” by obtaining emails between the reporters and the leakers.
In all, the Obama administration has charged eight people with leaking secrets, the most recent being former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.