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Presidential Leaks

12:15 PM, Jun 8, 2012 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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The story of the Stuxnet and Flame cyber exploits is so compelling that you almost don't care where it came from or if it represents a serious breach of national security. Almost. You can read David Sanger in the Times and Jonathan Last, here at THE WEEKLY STANDARDand you crave more. Including Mr. Sanger's just-published book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American PowerThe seductive power of this story resembles that of Enigma and Ultra and the codebreakers at Bletchly during the Second World War. And therein, of course, lies a problem.

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The secret of the allied success in breaking Germany's codes was considered so precious (and rightly so) that Churchill decided against warning his countrymen in Coventry of an impending Luftwaffe air attack, lest the Nazis suspect their message traffic had been compromised.  It was, in fact, not until almost 30 years after the end of the war before the story was told.  One does not ask why the secret was so closely guarded during the war – that much is obvious – but why the long post-war wait before the story was told?

Both the unasked and the asked question are relevant to the current controversy in Washington over just who leaked the story of operation Olympic Games and why, and how much damage has been caused by this security breach.  The controversy is both bipartisan and intensely political.  Senators McCain and Feinstein are on the case and plainly consider it a serious national-security matter.  At the same time, there are those who see a political agenda at work.  According to this view, if you ask the cui bono question, the answer has to be – President Obama.  The stories show him to be both a tough, take-charge wartime commander and, also, a man who thinks and takes a long view before acting.  Sort of what you'd expect a president to do, but reading it with all the detail and the nuance does tend to personalize the story and make the president seem ... well, presidential.

So, did the leaks come from the White House?

It is hard, still, for a civilian to know how much of the story would have made it into the public realm without any leaking from people in Washington. We almost certainly would have known about the existence of these two malware programs and we probably could have guessed who was behind them.  We may not, if Washington had buttoned up, have known any more than that for years.  But, there is also the inclination of governments to insist on secrecy long past the time when there is any point to it.  As, for instance, keeping the Ultra secret for thirty years after VE Day.  Once Stuxnet and Flame had been blown, why shouldn't the world know, in detail, the president's approach to cyber war? But the question, as always, is how soon is too soon? Secrecy, at some point, is just a reflexive response.  As is the journalistic instinct to uncover secrets and get a story.

This was the case with another code-breaking operation in World War II, one which allowed American codebreakers to read the Japanese Navy's message traffic and, thus, gain the advantage of surprise in the Battle of Midway.  One can make a very strong case that the U.S. Navy's victory in that battle might not have otherwise been possible.  And that revealing the existence of that codebreaking operation and its success would have amounted to something close to treason.

Not a week after the battle, the Chicago Tribune and some of its affiliate papers published a well-sourced story revealing that the U.S. knew the Japanese plans in advance.  The story did not mention codes and code-breaking, but had the Japanese read it, they could have made a not very educated guess and changed their code books.  The Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, wanted to prosecute under the 1917 espionage act.  But, of course, this would have drawn more attention to the story.  In any event, the Japanese did not read the Tribune.  Or, for that matter, Walter Winchell who wrote follow-ups.  The secret remained safe, and it was 25 years before the full story of the role codebreaking played at Midway was made public. 

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