Sunday, April 18, 2010

Will Someone Please Tell Me Who This Guy Is?

Okay. So I was reading this article on CNN's website about DoD reevaluating its Iranian contingency plans when I noticed something. The beginning of the article reads as follows:

The Pentagon and U.S. Central Command are updating military plans to strike Iran's nuclear sites, preparing up-to-date options for the president in the event he decides to take such action, an Obama administration official told CNN Sunday.

The article goes on to say, "The official did not want to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the work being conducted." Interesting. My first thought was pretty simple-minded: isn't the whole idea behind sensitive-natured work that you don't talk about it? Why is this guy talking to CNN? I mean, it's probably part of that official's job not to talk to the press, yet he/she is. If you are giving up information to the press that you aren't suppose to, aren't you causing all sorts of problems for your particular organization?

Thinking back to our fall trip to DC and our time with the DoS press spokesperson, I guess the content for this article was given on "not for attribution," the category of journalism sourcing in which the journalist may not disclose his/her source and therefore must refer to his/her source in such anonymous terms. You find these guys all over articles all the time:
  • the official did not wish to be named because it is an on-going investigation
  • the official did not wish to be named talking about internal defense policy
  • the CIA official wished to remain anonymous talking about classified operations
  • blah, blah, blah...
So laying out the dynamics of the article thus far, an Obama Administration official is talking about something sensitive in nature that DoD is doing with regards to Iran, which has thus been reported by CNN and now every weirdo with a computer can read about what's going on at leisure. Given this, it's not unreasonable to assume that all sorts of people at DoD are pissed at the leaky Obama Administration. And to speculate even further, I'll bet it's possible that the top Obama officials didn't know about or order this leak (reference: any episode of West Wing where this happens to CJ and she gets pissed), so they are trying to figure out who talked and are preparing to lay the whammy down on 'em.

This has been an issue before in the Obama White House, one example of which is referenced by this Foreign Policy Magazine post. It goes without saying that leaks and unauthorized disclosures of information from within one's own organization have more than likely been a problem for every president. And this issue of course reaches beyond the White House to every government department and agency and into the private sector; basically everywhere there's information that you don't want the public to know, there's someone there to make sure it ends up right where you don't what it to. This brings up all sorts of debates about journalism ethics, the US government classification system, journalistic sourcing, employee responsibility, political leaking, etc... all interesting topics.

Anyway, I digressed a little. Back to the CNN Iran article, it goes on to say:

In January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote a classified memo to the White House raising concerns about whether the administration had a sufficient policy in place, along with military options, for stopping Iran's progress in getting a nuclear weapon, the official confirmed. The memo was first reported Sunday in the New York Times.

Huh? So the SecDef writes a memo he deems to be classified in January, yet by April it makes it out to the NY Times and thus the whole world. Is nothing secret over there? How'd NY Times get the document? I mean, if I was running DoD, I'd figure this to be a major problem; there would be internal investigation city and I'd be the mayor.

Gates' spokesman Geoff Morrell initially declined to confirm the memo, but Gates said later Sunday in a written statement, 'The New York Times sources who revealed my January memo to the National Security Advisor mischaracterized its purpose and content.'

Here's the heart of the issue. Say you believe the above statement by Gates' spokesman, then it's reasonable to assume that leaks and unauthorized disclosures distort the public's view of your mission and actions because these anonymous sources aren't providing the full picture (because they simply don't have it or maybe because they have an agenda of their own). And very possibly, they risk national security by revealing all sorts of information to other countries and our enemies they we want kept secret. This must be extremely frustrating and counterproductive for government officials trying to do their jobs and fulfill there missions.

But then again, if protection of sources wasn't an important part of journalistic sourcing, we might not have much to read at all.

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