Emails: White House, State Department coordinated with journalist on national security leaks

Patrick Howley Political Reporter
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White House and State Department officials cooperated extensively on background with a New York Times journalist during the period that he broke confidential national security information in a series of leaks that prompted outrage from lawmakers, according to unearthed 2011 and 2012 emails.

The nonprofit organization Freedom Watch, which obtained the internal State Department emails through a Freedom of Information Act request, believes that the Obama administration carried out the leaks to bolster a tough image for itself on Iran.

Then-Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Michael Hammer and other State Department employees arranged background interviews between New York Times chief Washington correspondent David Sanger and State Department officials between December 2011 and March 2012 for Sanger’s 2012 book “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power.”

Sanger’s book included leaks of confidential national security information, including details of the computer worm Stuxnet that was used in a cyberattack against Iran. Sanger linked the worm to a U.S.-Israeli intelligence operation called “Operation Olympic Games” in a June 2012 New York Times article.

White House officials, including then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, began cooperating with Sanger before December 12, 2011.

“Yes, WH is cooperating, he has spent time with Donilon, others. They know he is looking to meet up with HRC and support,” Hammer wrote to his colleague Phillippe Reines in a December 12, 2011 email with the subject line “RE: Sanger.”

“Madam President, over the past few months there has been a disturbing stream of articles in the media and common among them, they cite elite, classified, or highly sensitive information in what appears to be a broader effort by the administration to paint a portrait of the President of the United States as a strong leader on national security issues–information for which there is no legitimate reason whatsoever to believe should be in the public domain,” Sen. John McCain said, according to June 5, 2012 transcripts of the Senate record.

“What price did the administration apparently pay to proliferate such a Presidential persona-highly valued in an election year? Access. Access to senior administration officials who appear to have served as anonymous sources divulging extremely sensitive military and intelligence information and operations,” McCain said. “With the leaks that these articles were based on, our enemies now know much more than they did the day before they came out about important aspects of our Nation’s unconventional offensive capabilities and how we use them.”

State Department officials coordinated closely with Sanger in the months preceding McCain’s statement, according to emails and other documents obtained by Freedom Watch.

“Wendy- Sanger is writing a book on the Obama Admin’s foreign policy to be published this June. He has talked to scores of people, including the Secretary, Bill, Jake, Kurt, Bob Einhorn and over at NSC and other agencies. We have been cooperating with him on this project and the chats have all been on background with anything on the record to be approved by us,” Assistant Secretary Hammer wrote to Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, a Hillary Clinton appointee, on March 2, 2012 in an email that included significant redactions. “Shall we offer him a time upon your return?.”

Sanger provided the State Department a perfect opportunity to portray Obama and Clinton as taking a tough stance on Iran.

“Among other topics, in what he calls the realm of ‘surprises,’ he is exploring the steady strengthening of the sanctions regime on Iran to become one of the most rigorous ever,” Hammer wrote in a March 15 memo to the Under Secretary under the sub-headline “Background and objectives of the interview.”

The emails show interactions as early as December 2011, and a document obtained by Freedom Watch shows a Sanger meeting with State Department officials on December 20, 2011.

“On the Sec., she knows I’m writing the book, so at most I’ll just remind her that at some point soon I’d love to get this going. I’m with you– we want to do Jake, Burns, etc. first,” Sanger wrote to Hammer in an email on December 3, 2011 with the subject line “Re: coupla book things.”

“Uzra- as I mentioned, David Sanger of NYT, is writing a book on the Obama administration’s foreign policy. We are coordinating with NSS, who has already spent time with him and supports Sanger’s requests to Interview the Secretary, Bill and others. Before he sits down with the Secretary- probably in late January -we hope we might find time for him to talk with Bill,” Hammer wrote to Uzra Zeya, then chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, on December 15, 2011.

“We are having Sanger meet Jake and Kurt next week and Einhorn in early January. If Bill is willing, It would be super to schedule in early-to-mid January. The session would be on background as a Senior Administration official. Anything on the record would be subject to our approval. I think we would need a solid 45 minutes,” Hammer continued in his email to Zeya on December 15, 2011.

State Department officials appeared to exchange information of such a sensitive nature with Sanger that it raised concerns about what the New York Times would report.

“Assured me all is for book and while they will be reporting on Israel/Iran but what you said is “walled off” and not for their reporting,” Hammer wrote to Jacob Sullivan on December 21, 2011 in an email with the subject line “Sanger.”

The Sanger coordination appears to have been part of a larger strategy by the State Department to interact with handpicked journalists during the 2012 election cycle.

“I think we should do Tom Friedman next- problem with him is that often he is on travel but if we have a window we can check if he is around. Otherwise, maybe we could do a chat with Fred Hiatt and Jackson Diehl of WaPo or Jerry Seib of WSJ,” Hammer wrote to State Department special assistant Colleen Neville on December 15, 2011.

Hillary Clinton and State Department officials “intimately participated in leaking highly classified national security information concerning U.S. cyber warfare capabilities and sources and methods, war plans against Iran should their nuclear program have to be militarily removed, and other top secret information,” Freedom Watch founder Larry Klayman told The Daily Caller.

“The reason for this was obviously to make President Obama and his administration look strong against terrorism in the lead up to the 2012 elections,” Klayman said.

“It is outrageous that low level leakers like Edward Snowden with regard to the NSA and Bradley Manning and Julian Assanage with regard to Wikileaks would be prosecuted or threatened with prosecution by the U.S. Justice Department when much more serious leaks by Obama and his administration go unaddressed by federal law enforcement authorities,” Klayman said.

Klayman also said that he believes Clinton and former National Security Advisor Donilon were complicit in leaking details of the Stuxnet worm, based on his review of the documents.

“Even for the Iranian scientists who get to work safely, life isn’t a lot easier. A confidential study circulating through America’s national laboratories estimates that the Stuxnet computer worm – the most sophisticated cyberweapon ever deployed against another country’s infrastructure – slowed Iran’s nuclear progress by one to two years. Now it has run its course. But there is no reason to believe the attacks are over,” Sanger reported for the New York Times in November 2011.

Stuxnet “appears to have been a joint project of American and Israeli intelligence” Sanger in his November 6, 2011 article, calling Stuxnet “devilishly ingenious: it infected millions of computers, but did damage only when the code was transferred to special controllers that run centrifuges, which spin at supersonic speed when enriching uranium. When operators looked at their screens, everything looked normal. But downstairs in the plant, the centrifuges suddenly spun out of control and exploded, like small bombs. It took months for the Iranians to figure out what had happened.”

“In the latest of the recently published articles – published on June 1, 2012, just a few days ago – the New York Times documented in rich detail the President’s secret decision to accelerate cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities with a computer virus that came to be known as Stuxnet. The author of the article, Mr. David Sanger, clearly states that former and current American officials spoke to him but refused to do so on the record because the program is both highly classified and parts of it are ongoing…an operation that was clearly one of the most tightly held national security secrets in our country until now,” McCain said on June 5, 2012.

The State Department did not return a request for comment.

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