White House Leaks: What Does Axelrod Know, and How Does He Know It?

So is David Axelrod now in charge of the investigation into the May-June leaks that have jeopardized our troops and undermined our national security in what is arguably the single greatest breach of sensitive national security information in the modern era? Or has Axelrod, the top adviser at Obama’s re-election campaign, merely been briefed on the status of that investigation--ahead of the proper authorities, and ahead of the general public?   

In any case, how could it be that a political operative is now speaking out on perhaps the most sensitive national security matters that the nation confronts?  These questions come to mind in the wake of Axelrod’s Wednesday appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” 

Host Joe Scarborough said to Axelrod--in a statement, not a question--“It is very obvious that the White House is leaking classified information.” And how, exactly, did Axelrod respond?

Axelrod answered, “I can tell you that the president of the United States did not leak classified information, as Mitt Romney suggested yesterday, and he didn’t authorize the leak of information, as Mitt Romney suggested yesterday.” 

Romney had, indeed, delivered a stinging attack on the leaks, declaring in a speech to the VFW on Tuesday, “This conduct is contemptible. It betrays our national interest.” Clearly, those words from the Republican challenger had rattled both the White House and the Obama re-election campaign. Thus, Axelrod was on TV the very next day, battling back. Axelrod’s message was intended to be political pacification: in effect, he was saying, Hey, folks, don’t worry about the leak issue; these are just partisan attacks from Barack Obama’s Republican opponent. So there’s nothing to see here, other than the usual political bickering.  

But in fact, Axelrod’s words on “Morning Joe” represented a significant backpedaling for Axelrod, who on June 10 had told ABC News that the White House, as a whole--beyond just the President specifically--was not involved in the leaks. Interestingly, in that appearance, we can see that Axelrod continuously used the word “we” in referring to the White House. For a man who left the White House staff in February 2011--giving up his security clearance and thus all access to classified materials--Axelrod certainly sounded as if he were still working in the building. Let’s pause here. Eighteen months after leaving the White House, Axelrod is still able to give precise and informed commentary on a serious legal investigation. The new position, of as July 25, is that Axelrod can attest only to the President’s personal non-involvement in the leaks, as distinct from the rest of the White House.    

Amazingly, the next day, Thursday, White House press secretary Jay Carney echoed Axelrod’s new line, assuring reporters that the President himself was not involved, while not offering the same assurance about the rest of the White House. So there we have it. Axelrod, from his Chicago political cockpit, calls the tune, and the White House press secretary, a federal employee, get up and dances to it.    

I am willing to concede, for the moment, that the President had nothing to do with the leaks of classified material. (Although, as Charles Krauthammer pointed out on Fox on Thursday night, the President can unilaterally and instantaneously declassify anything, and so, as a result, no legal violation could be said to have occurred if the leaked document was leaked, directly or indirectly, by the Commander-in-Chief.)  But that concession hardly ends the investigation of the White House; in fact, it begins the needed inquiry, because now we can reasonably infer, from both Axelrod and Carney, that, in fact, others at the White House might be behind the leaks.  

Furthermore, we might ask: why the change? What has Axelrod learned, over the six weeks from June 10 to July 25, that has caused him to narrow his blanket denials--from the whole of the White House to just the President?  Did the President personally tell Axelrod that he had nothing to do with the leaks? Or did someone else in the White House deliver the message to the campaign domo? Those would have been good follow-up questions for Scarborough on Wednesday, but, alas, Joe didn’t go there.    

Instead, the MSNBC co-host, perhaps mindful of not overly antagonizing his liberal viewers, gave Axelrod softball questions, such as, "How do we stop such leaks in the future?" Axelrod’s answer: “You stop it by sending strong signals. Strong signals have been sent.”  

Once again, we have to ask: exactly what, in God’s name, is Axelrod talking about? What “strong signals” have been sent? And by whom? Taking the President at his word--that he had nothing to do with the leaks--we still need to know what he has done, since, to deal with those around him who did leak?  With whom, exactly, has he spoken?  Did he call in his staff, one by one?  Or as a group?  And how does Axelrod know all this? It would certainly appear that Axelrod knows a lot more than the rest of us.  

But that’s not how the system is supposed to work. Only in some bizarro world are private-sector political operatives in the middle of national security matters of any kind. Indeed, it’s highly questionable whether the chief architect of the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns should have been in the White House at all in the intervening years, attending National Security Council meetings. And without a doubt, Axelrod, as an outside political campaign adviser, should not be involved in any national security matter inside the US government.

In the best of times, such involvement raises questions of undue politicization of life-and-death foreign policy matters. And at times such as this, when senior members of both the active-duty military and the Congress, even Democrats, have said that the leaks could cost American lives and render our national security programs ineffective, Axelrod should be completely outside the decision loop.  Answers about what the President did and did not know or say about a gravely serious issue should be coming from the White House itself. And not just from the press secretary, who, as we have seen, is taking his cues from the presidential campaign. Instead, we should be hearing from the chief of staff, or the White House legal counsel, or the Justice Department, or some other authorized government agency--not from the politicos at Obama-Biden 2012.  

So now we can ask: since Axelrod knows so much, will he be contacted by the Justice Department officials who have been tasked to investigate the leak? That’s not bloody likely, of course, since those investigators were handpicked by Attorney General Eric Holder, the most political AG since John Mitchell.    

In other words, the Holder investigation is nothing like the ambitious effort launched by the Bush 43 Justice Department in another leak case--the investigation of the Valerie Plame disclosure. That leak, from 2003, was a molehill compared to these many mountains of leaks today. And yet, even so, the Plame case led to the appointment of a fully empowered independent counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald--an appointment demanded at the time by both Barack Obama and Joe Biden--whose prosecutorial actions transfixed Washington for the better part of four years. Many have called for such an independent counsel in this current leak case; not surprisingly, the Obama administration is staunchly opposed. But who am I to question hypocrisy in Washington? 

For the sake of the country, we need to be serious now. That’s not a point of partisanship; that’s a point about the survival of the republic. If these leaks go unpunished, what’s the limit in the future? What restraints about national security will be felt by anyone with access to secret information?   

So now let’s restate the key questions that need to be asked of David Axelrod. He has been outside of the White House for 18 months, and so he can no longer claim the executive privilege that would still protect, for example, Jay Carney. Let’s ask three questions: 

First, why has your basic answer to the leak question changed from June 10  July 25? 

Second, have you spoken with the President, or anyone on the White House/National Security Council staff about these leaks? This question should pertain to all the people in the Situation Room, and yes, to another veteran political operative, Tom Donilon–now, incredibly and improbably, the national security adviser.   

Third, have you been contacted by any investigators from either the Justice Department or the Congress?   

Okay, that’s enough--at least for now--on Axelrod.   

Yet because this matter is so serious, we must now turn to those who have, to one degree or another, facilitated the White House culture of leaks. 

Where has the rest of Washington been on this matter? Where are the leaders? Where are the guardians of important institutions? Where are the patriots?   

The leaks in question emerged in May and June. And yet, where is the constant clamor from Wise Men, and Wise Women, for a crackdown on such recklessness? Where are the speeches and conferences and think-tank reports? Where is the steady drumbeat of newspaper editorials? And op-eds? Instead, we get a confederacy of silence, in which, with a few honorable exceptions such as Krauthammer, most “players” in DC would prefer not to jeopardize their “access” by calling out a fellow player for merely putting the country at risk.  

We might further ask: where have the working reporters been?  Why hasn’t Stephanie Cutter’s phone been ringing constantly with inquiries about her boss’s activities? Where are the investigative reporters seeking to find out who the leakers are? Actually, everyone in DC pretty much knows who the leakers are--one name, in particular, is Donilon. Yet, when it comes to sharing true news with their readers and viewers, most journalists, too, are part of the confederacy of silence.  

Indeed, the political culture of Washington sees the leak story as mostly inside-the-beltway fun and games.  Who’s got the best stuff? Who’s going to sell the most books? And it’s all sort of a joke on the American people. You know them: the folks out beyond the Beltway somewhere who pay the taxes, send their sons and daughters off to war, and hope, even now, that their leaders will play fairly with them. But as cases such as this prove, the joke is on the folks out there.    

And oh yes, the joke is also on the Pakistani doctor who helped the US kill bin Laden. He is now in a Pakistani prison for 33 years, and nobody should doubt that he will not survive the full length of that sentence, by accident or design. And the joke is on the Yemenis who have had to flee their country and go into hiding, once their involvement in US drone strikes in that country was detailed. And the joke is on the Israelis, who must live with the impending threat of a nuclear Iran, realizing that the leaks exposed and damaged not only America’s anti-nuclear efforts, but also their own.  

These jokes, of course, are not funny at all. This issue is deadly serious. The fate of America in the 21st century is now at risk. And so the DC confederacy of silence could well be the prelude to the awful silencing of American greatness, maybe even our national survival as a world leader.   

So that leaves the Congress as the last hope for a serious, silence-breaking investigation. Committees on Capitol Hill possess full investigative powers, including the power of the subpoena, as we saw, for instance, in the Watergate investigation.  

Now we must ask: will leaders on Capitol Hill, on both sides of the aisle, face up to the challenge posed by these leaks and do their investigative duty? That is, their their sworn duty, because every Member of Congress has taken an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Is the Congress still as good as its word? We’ll deal that question, and others, in future articles.


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