President Obama said on Friday it was “wrong” and “offensive” to suggest that White House staffers purposefully released classified national security information. Yet The New York Times recently published firsthand reports of President Obama’s approval of the Stuxnet cyber-attack on Iran.
Is President Obama suggesting that The Times concocted these reports? Probably not. David Sanger, the Times reporter in question, recently defended the administration on NPR’s “The Takeaway,” saying that administration officials only spoke to him after he learned the information on his own. According to Sanger, he contacted Obama’s staff to tell them he was going to run his account, at which point administration staffers agreed to speak with him.
This practice is commonplace in political journalism. And President Obama and his staff will likely use it to claim his administration did not “leak” any information; they simply confirmed what Sanger already knew.
But when it comes to Stuxnet and Iran, this explanation is insufficient and unacceptable. The world community has long suspected that the United States was responsible for, or complicit in, the Stuxnet attacks (it was previously conceivable that the operation was led by Israel, with the U.S. playing a supporting development role).
The White House should never have acknowledged it was responsible for the attack. Why? Two words: plausible deniability.
When it comes to national security, there is a big difference between acknowledging something that’s well-known and denying it in order to maintain plausible deniability. Take Israel’s nuclear weapons. The world has known for more than 40 years about Israel’s nukes. Israel has, in recent times, even appeared to acknowledge this fact with a wink and a nod.
But Israel has never officially admitted to having a nuclear arsenal. According to author Avner Cohen, the Israeli government has not spoken publicly on nuclear weapons since 1960. Why? What’s the point of refusing to acknowledge what everyone knows? Because officially acknowledging something of such grave significance can have equally grave consequences.
By publicly admitting to having a nuclear program, Israel would likely have lost aid and support from previous U.S. governments (especially in the ’60s and ’70s). It would have received numerous rebukes and attacks from the international community (in the days before this became commonplace). And, most importantly, acknowledging its weapons program would have set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that threatened both Israeli and regional security.
It’s possible to argue that Israel’s silent admission of nuclear weapons has spurred Iran to develop its own weapons program. But this is a relatively recent development. Can you imagine what the reaction of countries like Egypt and Syria would have been if Israel had acknowledged having a nuclear weapons program two years after it built one? Well, this is exactly what the Obama administration has done on Stuxnet.