POLITICO (Washington) - Bob Woodward’s Monday-morning exclusive on a 66-page report from Gen. Stanley McChrystal to President Barack Obama about Afghanistan policy was a rite of passage for the new administration: the first major national security leak and a sure sign that the celebrated Washington Post reporter has penetrated yet another administration.
White House officials greeted the leak with a grimace, but none suggested they’d begin a witch hunt for the leaker. Woodward is famous for his access to the principals themselves — he recently traveled to Afghanistan with National Security Adviser James Jones — and leak hunters couldn’t expect with confidence that they’d find themselves disciplining just an undisciplined junior staffer.
But inside the White House and out, the leak touched off another familiar Washington ritual: speculation about the leaker’s identity and motives.
This is a capital parlor game that, for the Obama administration, has some dire implications. Unless the West Wing somehow orchestrated an elaborate head fake — authorizing what looks at first blush like an intolerable breach of Obama’s internal deliberations — the Woodward story suggests deeper problems for a new president than a bad news cycle.
Woodward — like other reporters, only more so — tends to shake loose information when he can exploit policy conflicts within an administration. There is now a big one over a critical national security decision, along with evidence that some people who ostensibly work for Obama feel they can pressure him with impunity. It took several years within former President George W. Bush’s administration before deep personal and policy fissures became visible.
So who did it?
The simplest theory — and one most administration officials Monday were endorsing — is that a military or civilian Pentagon official who supports McChrystal’s policy put it out in an attempt to pressure Obama to follow McChrystal’s suggestion and increase troop levels in Afghanistan.
But not everyone in Washington is a believer in Occam’s razor, so all manner of other theories flourished.
There are believers in the reverse leak, in which the leak itself is meant to damage McChrystal’s position by inducing White House anger at the general. There’s the fake leak, in which the White House may have been trying to back itself into a corner. A former government official with ties to the Pentagon said the talk in the building was that a senior military official had given it to the reporter for his book on the Obama White House — not realizing it could end up in print sooner.
“That places the ball clearly in the president’s court,” former Clinton Defense Secretary William Cohen said, noting that Obama had already publicly placed his trust in McChrystal’s judgment.
“It’s an effort — whether by or by somebody in the Pentagon or maybe the White House — to say, ‘You’ve asked the military to give you not what you want to hear but what you have to know. Now it’s up to you as commander in chief to decide if you think you have a better idea.’”
The leak is a shot across the bows, he said, of Vice President Joe Biden and of leading congressional Democrats who oppose a buildup in Afghanistan.
Another Clinton veteran with experience in national security matters was not so sure, however, that Obama wasn’t helped by a piece that lays the public ground for an inevitable troop escalation. “This thing has to have some airing and consideration by the public — so in the tactical sense, there’s a benefit to considering it,” the official said.
But some said all this speculation may be overthinking the matter. Many people in Washington, after all, are motivated by personal vanities as much as by policy convictions.
“It’s most likely someone who has or is cultivating a personal relationship with Bob Woodward and positioning himself to look good in Woodward’s next book,” said Matt Bennett, vice president at the Democratic-leaning think tank Third Way, echoing the views of many inside government and out.
The history of Woodward sources portrayed as heroes is long, including the likes of Colin Powell and, for a time, George W. Bush. But Woodward’s take on the Bush administration also changed dramatically with time, and some portrayed positively in his early books were savaged in the later ones.
Whatever the motive, the appearance of McChrystal’s report makes it more difficult for Obama to defer, through an extensive series of consultations, a decision over which side he will take in a debate over the recommendation of adding more soldiers and civilians to a more robust mission with the goal of giving Afghanistan — perhaps for the first time — a strong, functioning central government. The release follows a letter from a range of Obama’s usual critics — from neoconservative foreign policy thinkers to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Bush adviser Karl Rove — pressing Obama to follow just that policy.
“The Pentagon hasn’t changed and there are a lot of people within the Pentagon who understand the strategic use of the leak,” said Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the Democratic-leaning National Security Network. One possibility you have to look at is this being leaked by someone who is in league with the neocon assault on Obama, where anything short of ‘all in’ is framed as weak and a defeat.”
In the larger sense, the document’s contents are completely unsurprising — McChrystal’s views were widely known, and the assessment just spells them out. But giving the document to a brand name like Bob Woodward, who has a flair for the dramatic, ensures big play in The Washington Post and broad pickup by other media.
“This leak would, by all appearances, be the act of someone who supports an increase in troop strength and resources,” said Kevin Kellems, a communications director for former Vice President Dick Cheney, who noted that “the power of Woodward going on page A1 is exceptional” in its ability to dictate to wire services and cable outlets, a vanishing power of the newspapers. “This is the act most likely of a civilian who is an advocate of this position and believes they were right to do this because lives were at stake.”
Third Way’s Bennett, whose group backs a bigger commitment in Afghanistan, said he thought the document would do McChrystal’s position more harm than good.
“It’s not going to pressure the president to go the way they want him to go,” he said. “It’s going to annoy people in the White House, and that’s never a good idea.”
Others argued that the White House itself benefits from the leak.
“It’s a helpful thing to have out in the ether for the White House,” said Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, who said the report would help beat back criticism on the left. “I think the White House wants to convey how much pressure they’re under from the military,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t speculate on the source of the leak.
Others simply welcomed the fact that the leak might force a quicker decision on an urgent question.
“It at least, for the first time, gives people a tangible picture of what the recommended options are, and it to some extent forces the issue,” said Anthony Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has been critical of an Afghan buildup. “The tendency in the White House is to try and slip this until health care and possibly the economy are taken care of, but nobody has that kind of time.”
c Capitol News Company, LLC 2009