The uproar in Congress includes both sides of the Capitol and both sides of the aisle. Lawmakers are making furious calls for FBI investigations and for tightening up the nation’s espionage laws. The reason: a spate of New York Times articles and a new book by its chief Washington correspondent, David Sanger. Last Friday, Sanger revealed a state secret that is arguably more sensitive than any other state secret that has been revealed since the Rosenbergs tipped off Stalin about the American atomic bomb. Sanger’s new book reveals that the Obama White House is conducting a coordinated campaign of industrial sabotage against Iran by means of cyber weapons. Remember the Stuxnet virus or the more sophisticated worm known as Flame? According to Sanger, all were components of an American government plan to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. Or as Pogo famously pointed out: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The foreseeable harm done by Sanger and his Times colleagues now includes the likelihood of Iranian retaliation because industrial sabotage, like blockades and air raids, are acts of war. You might remember how, earlier this year, the Iranians forced down our beyond-top-secret spy drone, apparently by spoofing its GPS system. Given the sloppy condition of our cyber defenses, the mullahs must surely be contemplating retaliation, say against the notoriously computer-dependent American infrastructure. Could Iran really do that? Obama’s own cyber-czars have long acknowledged our vulnerabilities to such attacks. Although few Americans now realize it, The New York Times has brought us closer to another horrific day like 9/11, when the lights go out, the ATMs don’t work and the gas pumps at the local filling station aren’t open.
But there is an even deeper internal security issue: How far does the First Amendment extend today — or has it become the suicide pact of the 21st century? Does the “public’s right to know” mean that the press can freely compromise secrets directly affecting the nation’s survival? To begin with, remember that the secrets betrayed by The New York Times were not the property of the White House, the National Security Council, the Pentagon or the 14 alphabetical agencies comprising our intelligence establishment. Instead, those secrets were owned by the American people, who rely on their government to protect those crown jewels, which are essential to both the common defense and the general welfare.
So what do we do about Sanger and The New York Times — or a White House leaking like a sieve since Inauguration Day? This may be a moment to make haste slowly, to re-establish a badly frayed bipartisan consensus and make better sense of the nation’s rapidly changing, information-age interests. The appropriate place to begin is in the House, specifically the House Armed Services and Government Oversight Committees. Those committees should adopt the RICO model (used to crack organized crime conspiracies) and use the FBI to pin down how the secrets were leaked. Sanger, his source and their co-conspirators are now profiting in various ways from the sale of American secrets. So why not use a RICO approach to fix responsibility: Who leaked, who conspired and, most of all, qui bono?
That’s an appropriate response considering that the stakes are as high as the offices of the likely leakers. Like Thomas Donilon, for example, the current national security advisor. Both in Sanger’s book and Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, Donilon is conspicuous for his rigorous self-promotion and hyper-political willingness to force the national security establishment to hew the administration line. You never know the facts until you do the investigation: But Donilon’s West Wing office is a good place to begin. As a young officer investigating security crimes in the Army equivalent of the FBI, I learned a vital lesson: Conspiracies break only when you give people compelling reasons to tell the truth.