Woodward’s Secrets

Jeebus: Goldsmith may be getting a hang of this blogging thing, but I’m not: John Rizzo, not John Brennan. So the stuff I originally said about Brennan doesn’t make any sense.

I may not always agree with Jack Goldsmith, but he’s getting a hang of this blogging thing. Today, he posts the answer John Brennan gave him to the question of how Bob Woodward got very specific details of a meeting that a number of Obama’s top advisors had to leave because they didn’t have the appropriate clearance.

The first Chapter of Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars describes Barack Obama’s first post-election intelligence briefing from Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, on November 6, 2008.  The chapter shows McConnell, at the direction of President Bush, excluding many Obama aides (including Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta and former Deputy National Security Advisor James Steinberg) from the briefing.  Because the briefing contained highly classified information about “sources and methods,” McConnell explained, only those “designated to take a top national security cabinet post” could attend.   Woodward then recounts this highly classified intelligence briefing in great detail, including several highly classified CIA and NSA programs, and their code names.

After reading this chapter, I wondered how a meeting involving classified information so sensitive that a close Obama aide and former top national security official could not attend could the following year be recounted in such loving detail in the first chapter of a best-selling book.  Woodward clearly got his information from participants in the meeting or their close aides.  Was it right for these people to speak to Woodward about these matters?  Was it legal?  I sent these questions to John Rizzo, the just-retired thirty-four year veteran CIA lawyer who has seen his share of leaked classified information over the years.

John responded:

Simple.  When a President himself is a key source and directs or at least signals to his Administration to cooperate with the author, that for all intents and purposes means the book becomes one big authorized disclosure. That’s what Obama did for Woodward, and that’s what Bush did for Woodward in his three books during that Administration, which also were packed with hitherto sensitive information.  That’s what is remarkable and unique about Woodward’s standing.

Now, Goldsmith appears offended that Obama and Bush would treat classified information so lightly.

Me, I’m more interested in what this says about Woodward’s (and, while we’re talking about it, Judy Miller’s) position in the information management function.

John Brennan–a guy who oversaw targeting for Cheney’s illegal wiretap program and therefore presumably had the highest clearance in two Administrations–lackadaisically says that if the President wants something leaked, it becomes legal to leak it.

In Judy Miller’s case, we saw how this selective leaking ensured the Administration could declassify its politicized case for war, while ensuring those who disputed the case were kept silent under threat of prosecution.

Woodward is even more interesting. Woodward knew to ask certain pointed questions of Richard Armitage–the same questions, as it turns out, that Bob Novak asked to elicit information about Valerie Plame’s purported role in Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger. But according to John Brennan, at least, even if Richard Armitage leaked Plame’s role intentionally, it would not be illegal. And remember, too, that on July 8 or 9 (this is reflected in notes introduced at trial; you’ll have to take my word for it though, because I don’t have my records with me), the VP’s office did give Woodward detailed information about the Iraq NIE. In other words, we know Woodward was a part of the OVP’s strategy for rebutting Joe Wilson in what was effectively a political hit.

More generally, though, consider what this suggests about the excuse that Cheney was prepared to use for having ordered the leak of Plame’s identity. John Brennan, at least, argues that if the President “signals to his Administration” that he wants certain information out there, it’s legal to leak it. I don’t necessarily buy that, mind you.

But it suggests one of Obama’s key advisors buys off on the idea that it’s cool for the President to selectively declassify information (you know, like leaks to the press about targeting Anwar al-Awlaki, even if you later invoke state secrets about it) for political gain.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

  1. orionATL says:

    written like an athlete –

    never give up; keep on diggin’.

    it may take years more to fill in all the details of the misconduct involved in the presidential outing cia specialist plame.

    but plame was the SECOND warning our nation was given about electing, then trusting, a media-vetted president.

    the first was the executive branch full-court-press psych-ops leading to the invasion and occupation of iraq.

    the third warning was the election of media-vetted candidate barrack obama.

    but what good are warnings to a populace,

    if they have no standing to change events?

    if who rules is decided at levels well above ours,

    leaving us only with the ability to ratify oligarchical control?
    power to control events

  2. allan says:

    EW, you don’t mean John Brennan, you mean John Rizzo, don’t you?

    Added: Not that I’m defending John Brennan, mind you.

  3. radiofreewill says:

    Wouldn’t Rizzo’s rationale – a variation on Nixon’s ‘if the President does it, then it’s not illegal’ – be the most likely explanation given by Bush and Cheney in their joint meeting with Fitz?

    • radiofreewill says:

      Ooops! Bush and Cheney were interviewed together for the 911 Commission.

      It looks like Bush and Cheney were interviewed separately in the Plame investigation:

      Cheney – May 8, 2004 PDF (“no idea who may have made the unauthorized disclosure…” and 72 instances of “Can’t recall”)

      Bush – June 24, 2004 (“No one wants to get to the bottom of this matter more than the president of the United States…”)

      From what I can find on the toobz, it doesn’t look like Bush and Cheney declared the Nixon defense of “If the president does it…” but more than likely, imvho, went the route of the president’s ‘declassification authority,’ which would almost certainly have meant that Judy was given a security clearance…

  4. cregan says:

    Wheel, a very interesting point and post. Complicated. Somewhat difficult to see how you could have it some other way except by having a requirement that the leak must be authorized specifically and in writing by only the President personally. Exactly what information is to be released and that it is formally authorized to be released.

    But, no matter, it is a very interesting point.

    Odd to see these things treated so lightly.

    • emptywheel says:

      Which was precisely the issue in the Plame case.

      Now that I’ve fixed my RIZZO typo (thanks all), it is in some ways more interesting,as Rizzo was acting GC during much of hte Plame investigation (though would not have done the original referral).

  5. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    I had a Roman History prof who really disliked Suetonius. Sure, he got the ‘scoops’ of the old Roman emperors’ bachanals, sure he had all the palace gossip. But in the end, he was a primarily a gossip in the eyes of my prof. A political creature, a courtier, a syncophant.

    If humanity survives another 500 years or more, then perhaps some future History prof will say of Woodward, “He was the Suetonius of the late 20th century…”

    • skdadl says:

      Aw, c’mon, rOTL, Woodward is ‘way too prissy to be Suetonius, ‘way too prissy. At least Suetonius is not prissy — courtier, yes, but wonderfully, ah, blunt? honest? fun? Many things that Woodward is not.

  6. fatster says:

    O/T This article gets into the nitty-gritty of Canada’s terrist laws.

    U.K. politician George Galloway flies to Toronto on Saturday after court decision

    “Eighteen months ago, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney blocked then-British MP George Galloway from Canada, labeling him a terror supporter and a national security risk.
    . . .
    “This week, after Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley issued his 60-page decision on the matter, Galloway and his supporters were fully vindicated.”


    • skdadl says:

      Two things about Justice Mosley’s decision may be interesting to people here. Although he turned down Galloway’s appeal (because Galloway didn’t actually try to enter after being warned), Mosley said that the docs showed clearly that Jason Kenney (Citizenship & Immigration minister) and his appalling little minion had interfered politically in the work of Border Services, and not because Galloway presented a genuine terrorist threat but to suppress his opinions.

      Mosley went on to write a fascinating and thoughtful section about what constitutes material support for terrorism, and giving aid to the elected government of Gaza, even if that’s Hamas, ain’t material support for terrism — I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but it is great. Very hard for anyone to argue against Mosley — before he was a judge, he drafted our anti-terrism act of 2001-02, when he was senior guy at DFAIT.

      • fatster says:

        Oh, good. I was hoping you’d see the comment, skdadl. Your Mosley sounds like a thoughtful and thorough Justice. His reasoning and decision in this instance are certainly encouraging and I hope news of it reaches judges here in the US as well.

  7. pdaly says:

    Since it seems Woodward was given permission to disclose once classified information, then the formality of obtaining 2-source confirmation seems a sham reporter’s dance on Woodward’s part.

    Perhaps oops-I-did-it-again-Armitage was a willing performer, afterall, pushing his midrift towards any available microphone.

    • emptywheel says:

      Yeah, that’s a pretty good example.

      Though he’s right. If you believe that as CinC the PResident can evade court oversight, well, there you have it–the right to target Americans.

      But that begs the whole question of whether we are really at war or not. Some of Goldsmith’s colleagues say we’re not.

      • klynn says:

        The right to target Americans serving our national security as well.

        But you have known this for a long time!

        How in the world do our leaders think they will ever get enough intel people in the future, when intel staff do not have any protection from the declassification it’s legal to leak power of the President?

        Nor would they have protection from the “It’s legal to strike a US citizen” as well.

        I think we are now in the middle of intel and judicial chaos because of all of this “legal to leak” and “legal to strike w/o due process.” There is no policy chain of protection to trust as you risk your life in your public service.

        How in the world are we “going” to build democracies with open power grabs such as these described in the media?”

        The end results have not show to be stabilizing displays of power and authority.

      • pdaly says:

        Goldsmith’s other argument is that running things by a judge is not the only way the President can remain within the law, that the President is receiving advice from lawyers in the Executive Branch–lawyers who serve at the pleasure of the President, so why wouldn’t their advice be trustworthy?

        And why was it that Goldsmith felt he had to resign after withdrawing the Bybee/Yoo torture memos? Does honest advice that displeases the administration require this personal sacrifice of one’s job? By contrast, do judges have the same consequences attached to their legal rulings?

  8. bobschacht says:

    John Brennan, at least, argues that if the President “signals to his Administration” that he wants certain information out there, it’s legal to leak it.

    Aren’t we in Pixie Dust territory here?

    Bob in AZ

    • pdaly says:

      Yes, and if the President’s team of lawyers, working at the pleasure of the President, assure him that it is legal for him to act in a certain way, then who are we to think that their advice is anything but reasoned and true?

    • Garrett says:

      Bob Woodward has magic powers, but no pixie dust.

      But if you don’t sprinkle pixie dust on him, he can turn you into an ass, or a frog.

      • bobschacht says:

        Hi, Garrett!
        I did not mean to suggest that Woodward was the pixie duster, but rather that he was writing about executive pixie dusting, which EW has written about before. How is that different from, say, Louis XIV’s “L’etat c’est moi”? I thought we were done with that model.

        Bob in AZ

  9. JThomason says:

    “When I fell asleep the standard was Congress makes the laws and the President executes and enforces them. When I awakened much was different.”

    — Rip Van Winkle

  10. perris says:

    But according to John Brennan, at least, even if Richard Armitage leaked Plame’s role intentionally, it would not be illegal

    glad you disclaimed that, I do not believe a president has any such authority to declassify anything he chooses


  11. jackie says:

    Interesting times… :)
    I’m thinking BushCo and Puddle’ must be getting pretty nervous.. Thoughts of War Crimes charges and Trials etc must be floating closer and closer…
    And, with ‘The State of Israel’s latest hi-jacking on the High Seas’.. I’m guessing England is not amused at all… And, I’m betting the legs of the ‘Unholy Trinity’ are really wobbly, folks are going to start falling…Popcorn anyone??? ;)

    ‘Tony Blair jumped into bed with the US “war on terror” despite knowing within weeks of its launch that there was a risk Britons were being tortured, according to newly published secret documents.

    The information, contained in an internal government memo, came to light after High Court judges forced the government to release a number of confidential documents on Tuesday.’


    • fatster says:

      “Thoughts of War Crimes charges and Trials etc must be floating closer and closer…”

      I doubt it. Just look at this:

      Activist berates White House, Clinton for honoring ‘war criminal’ Kissinger


        • fatster says:

          Thanks for that, jackie. Mebbe I just been around too long. I’m still waiting for answers about what happened in Dallas in 1963. Sigh.

          • jackie says:

            You know, once the whole ‘I’m a Bush and have an Invulnerability Cape!!’ crap is dispensed with, I’m betting there are a LOT of people more than willing to revisit old ‘stories’ And, there is a lot of Bush era history just waiting to jump up and smack them all hard… ;)

    • skdadl says:

      Let’s hear it for the UK High Court! Those guys have principles, and they have, y’know, the other necessary equipment. May other judges take notes.

      • fatster says:

        Here’s what I found about that, BayStateL. Now, let’s see, it’s a “plan”. Is that a deal?

        AIG, U.S. agree on plan to pay back taxpayers


    • bobschacht says:

      Rahm-O is gone-o.

      hip hip HOORAY! hip hip HOORAY! hip hip HOORAY!

      Apparently, he’s not even sticking around until election day.

      But who is Pete Rouse?

      Bob in AZ

        • bobschacht says:

          Thanks for the link. Looks good to me– especially his work with Daschle and that he’s a Senate guy. The Senate is the choke point right now, and Rahm was awful at dealing with the Senate. Looks like a good step in the right direction.

          I dunno about the “flamboyant resistant jeans” however, but I guess that would work well for Senate dealings. I hear they don’t like “flamboyant” people all that much. They’re too genteel. But I had no idea one could get flamboyant resistant jeans. Who knew? Well, other than BayStateLibrul and Pete Rouse.

          Bob in AZ

    • BayStateLibrul says:

      You confirm what I thought would happen. Obama is on the shit list,

      and anything he does is meet with scorn/distrust. I like a balanced approach. I view the deal as good, but it will never live up to expectations. You know that us humans are not perfect? The guy can’t win. When he appointed Warren ( a good thing) it was met with the same reactions. I find it sad.

  12. fatster says:

    Feds want case dropped against Afghan [Niazi]
    Overseas witness unable to testify in perjury trial for brother-in-law of bin Laden’s bodyguard


  13. jaker says:

    Will we ever know the damage done to national security by the Bush administration’s outing of Plame? The cost? Damage done? Lives lost?