WORLD NEWS TOMORROW – NEW YORK: The drip of revelations from the White House intended to reassure Americans that Barack Obama can make the tough decisions on national security is rapidly becoming a flood.
The latest revelation, published in the New York Times, has Obama personally directing cyber-attacks on Iran’s nuclear programme. Just a few days ago, the White House spoon-fed a story to the same paper that portrayed the president as agonising over who should go on the “kill list” of targets for the dramatically increased number of US drone attacks against suspected terrorists.
All this is designed to bolster Obama’s claim to be as solid on national security as any Republican and insulate him from accusations that he is weak on Iran or Syria in the runup to November’s presidential election.
Last year, the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, called Obama weak and timid. The president came under attack even from Democrats in Congress over his attempts to close the Guantánamo Bay prison and end military trials of accused terrorists, and for “endangering Israel” by not exerting more pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme.
But it’s been hard to make that label stick since the killing of Osama bin Laden. That comes at a cost, not least among Obama’s liberal supporters who were disturbed to hear that the president underplays civilian casualty figures from drone strikes by declaring just about every adult male who is killed to be a combatant.
But it does leave the Republicans with a challenge in trying to attack Obama over national security and provides a convenient distraction from the country’s continuing economic problems, with unemployment once again on the rise in figures released on Friday.
Still, the White House is open to the charge that Obama is playing politics with national security by revealing so much about the drone operations and virus attacks on Iran’s nuclear programme as well as other intelligence operations. “This is very sensitive stuff,” said Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant defence secretary in the Bush administration. “We shouldn’t be exposing our intelligence sources and methods. It opens us up to attribution. People will say if America can do it, why can’t we do it? Also, I’m really worried about retaliation. You can’t forget that Iran is no slouch when it comes to cyber operations.”
Mike Rogers, the Republican intelligence committee chairman in the House of Representatives, last month said that administration leaks revealing details of a failed plot out of Yemen to blow up a US-bound plane, exposed by an informant, jeopardised a continuing intelligence operation.
“There were other opportunities, I believe, [that] were lost by the fact that it was leaked,” he said. “These leaks are dangerous and could lead to someone’s death.”
Rogers said he was reviewing whether Obama’s team was “maybe trying to put this in a political narrative to help their politics”.
The White House also came under fire last month from Senator Marco Rubio, a potential running mate for Romney, after it was revealed that it had given the Hollywood director Kathryn Bigelow access to previously undisclosed information about the operation to kill Bin Laden for a film. Rubio said it was “part of a troubling trend of chest thumping” by the administration and could “impact the ability to carry out similar operations in the future”.
Peter King, chairman of the House homeland security committee, said it was shocking that “filmmakers being allowed to tour the CIA’s vaults”.
Others have criticised the administration for publicly confirming the role of a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, who helped the CIA track Bin Laden. Afridi was jailed for 33 years last month by a tribal court.
On the first anniversary of Bin Laden’s death last month, Obama came under strong attacks from Republicans, including John McCain, his rival in the 2008 election, who accused him of trying to take political advantage of the operation. The president suggested that Romney would not have ordered the raid against the al-Qaida leader.
“This is the same president who said, after Bin Laden was dead, that we shouldn’t ‘spike the ball’ after the touchdown. And now Barack Obama is not only trying to score political points by invoking Osama bin Laden, he is doing a shameless end-zone dance to help himself get re-elected,” he said.
Romney said it was “very disappointing for the president to try to make this a political item”.
But Obama has also come under criticism from the left over the leaks designed to make him look tough. “He has put a prettier and more palatable face on extremely ugly policies,” wrote Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer, in Salon. “Many Obama fans claimed during the 2008 election that his background as a constitutional lawyer would ensure reversal of the most extremist Bush/Cheney policies, but he has instead used that background for the opposite goal.”