Tuesday, July 31, 2012

deterrence by leaks

Congress and the Obama administration are in a renewed dither over leaks of classified information. The Senate is even considering a bill to forbid anonymous briefings for journalists except by a few top officials. Lots of luck!

There are too many reasons for leaks for them to be banned. Some are trial balloons. Some are whistleblower disclosures that we on the outside deserve to know. Some are political puffery, either with the favored journalists or with the broader public. And some, pretty few in fact, are damaging revelations of military or intelligence operational details.

Last week, reporters were told that the National Security Adviser, Tom Donilon, had briefed Israeli officials about U.S. military planning for possible conflict with Iran. I take that as an effort to reassure people in both countries on the seriousness of U.S. determination to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons -- and to persuade Israel to calm down and wait for the ever tougher sanctions to bite. No doubt it also had domestic political benefits in America, but I believe that was a collateral effect,  not the reason for the disclosure.

A harder case to assess is today's New York Times piece about Pakistan.  The thrust of the article is that American and Pakistani differences over how to deal with the Haqqani network could lead to a rupture in relations. But it also mentions that Haqqani suicide bombers seem determined to inflict mass casualties on U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, and have come perilously close. It then says that U.S. officials have met to consider contingency responses in case  a mass attack succeeds.
The meetings yielded a list of about 30 possible responses, according to a senior official who was briefed on the deliberations — everything from withdrawing the Islamabad ambassador, to a flurry of intensified drone attacks on Haqqani targets in Pakistan’s tribal belt, to American or Afghan commando raids on Haqqani hide-outs in the same area.
One possible reason for this leak is to remind the Pakistanis that, if they don't launched their often promised and often delayed operations against Haqqani, the U.S. would take unilateral actions that, like the Bin Laden raid, would greatly embarrass the security services.  If so, that could be a justifiable reason for the leaks.

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