“Because somebody decided to leak this intelligence while we were trying to get to the bottom of it, that may never be possible now, and that’s a shame,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters.
It’s become standard operating procedure for the White House: Redirect attention to the media when pressed about Trump’s knowledge of — and response to — various threats. When the administration was grilled earlier this year about when Trump first learned about the coronavirus, the White House said it was the press — not Trump — that had downplayed the outbreak’s severity. The tactic has had the effect of distracting from the intelligence itself. Yet it has also inadvertently revealed how intelligence gets from the ground to the president’s desk.
“It’s a deflection — it’s like yelling squirrel — they’re not addressing what the underlying substance is, they’re trying to point to the shiny object in the corner,” said Mark Zaid, a national security attorney who represented the whistleblower who initially revealed the details of Trump’s controversial phone call with the Ukrainian president. “The White House has only made it worse by their deflection because it’s turned the whole situation upside down so the underbelly is exposed.”
The catalyst for the most recent conversation about American intelligence was a New York Times report late last month. It claimed the White House had intelligence that the Russian government had paid bounties to Taliban-linked fighters in Afghanistan for the heads of U.S. soldiers.
The news had serious implications for Trump. Further reporting on the bounty program has revealed that high level officials were aware of the intelligence and that it was included in February in the Presidential Daily Brief, a collection of important and classified material for the commander in chief. Yet senior officials have supported the president’s claim that he was not briefed on the information, although lawmakers have confirmed the information was included in the written daily briefing.
Last last month, Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said the military “continues to evaluate intelligence” about the bounty program. “To date,” Hoffman added, “DOD has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports.”
Instead, national security leaders across the government have, in statements, made the focus about the leaks that are driving these stories.
“Leaks compromise and disrupt the critical interagency work to collect, assess, and ascribe culpability,” said CIA Director Gina Haspel. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe struck a similar note: “Leaking of any classified information disrupts the vital interagency work to collect, assess, and mitigate threats and places our forces at risk.”
The White House more directly called out media outlets themselves.
“The front page of The New York Times is not the venue for discussing classified information,” McEnany said on Tuesday. “The White House podium is not the venue for discussing classified information. We are here today, having this discussion, because of an irresponsible, anonymous leak to The New York Times.”
Trump, as is often the case, was more direct, accusing The New York Times of completely fabricating the story.
“The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party. The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself. If the discredited @nytimes has a source, reveal it. Just another HOAX!”
Trump’s “fake news” claims cut against the simultaneous claims officials were making that those who leaked the information should be prosecuted.
A senior administration official said it is “deeply disturbing” that enough people feel justified revealing such information to major publications. “The people would have to be classified at high levels and the reporters would have to feel the national security risk is justified.”
The leaks also seem to have come from several different corners of the federal government — stories about the bounty program have been written by teams of reporters who cover different subjects, suggesting the origin was not with one single leaker.
Speaking to reporters, O’Brien outlined how the concerning raw intelligence was shared with allies, and said an interagency process was started to verify and corroborate the information.
“This should be a story about how things work, and how things work right in the government,” O’Brien said. “The reason it’s not … is because some leaker took it upon themselves in an effort to attack the president or promote some policy agenda, to leak allegations that now make it nearly impossible for us to find out what happened.”
National security experts said that the administration’s quibbling with who leaked what to whom is the actual boon for foreign intelligence services.
“All the discussion that the United States is now having publicly is now being devoured by foe and friend alike to not only assess our intelligence capacity but also to develop geopolitical strategies for those countries,” Zaid said.
“It reveals serious problems related to the intelligence reporting process at the White House,” said Jason Ross Arnold, a professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in government secrecy, surveillance and whistleblowing. “This is not a frivolous leak. If everything is true, then it gives us important insight about the president’s decision making and his perspective on American national security.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Blaming the media is a favorite tactic for Trump’s White House. The president has accused the media, often without evidence, for any variety of things: Stoking violence at protests about police brutality and racial injustice; driving down the stock market amid fears about the coronavirus and clashes between Saudi Arabia and Russia over oil production; trying to keep the country closed during the coronavirus in an effort to damage Trump’s reelection bid.
And when discussing the coronavirus, McEnany frequently goes after the media when pressed about Trump’s response to the pandemic. She claims the media underestimated its severity, ducking questions about how Trump has at times downplayed the outbreak.
“Does Vox want to take back that they proclaim that the coronavirus would not be a deadly pandemic? Does The Washington Post want to take back that they told Americans to ‘Get a grip, the flu is bigger than the coronavirus?’” McEnany told reporters in May.
Notably, however, McEnany repeatedly left out key caveats included in the headlines, stories or tweets she was highlighting. She also ignored the copious amounts of reporting the outlets were doing at the time on the severity of pandemic in various hotspots.