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Obama denial of news leaks rings untrue

Jun 14, 2012 - By The Dallas Morning News Services

President Barack Obama's Friday news conference will resonate for one statement, and, arguably, not the right one.

It's one thing to assert, "The private sector is doing fine." It's quite another to state categorically, "The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive. It's wrong."

Despite Republican carping, Obama's role as source or orchestrator of national security leaks remains unproven. At issue are sensitive disclosures to New York Times reporters that create suspicion because they serve almost exclusively to toughen Obama's commander-in-chief image. Key Democrats like Sen. Dianne Feinstein have joined GOP calls for answers.

But simply reading The Times reveals where its reporters are learning about sophisticated virus attacks on Iran's nuclear computers; Obama's personal management of a terrorist "kill list"; the drone strike program; the apparent infiltration of al-Qaida cells.

The Times cites "current and former advisers," "senior administration officials" and "members of the president's national security team" in the room for meetings with Obama.

To believe Obama's implausible denial, one also has to disbelieve The Times' description of its sourcing.

Such classified leaks obviously make dangerous missions even more so for U.S. military and civilian diplomats. They also shake allies, who begin wondering if those Americans can keep anything secret.

Still, calls for a special counsel investigation miss the point, if the goal is to stop the flow. Instead, Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed two U.S. attorneys.

Chain of command is a fair question, but nothing precludes Congress from holding its own hearings to keep light on the matter.

If reporters must be subpoenaed, prosecutors should recognize the very high bar and should have exhausted all other avenues. They also should recall that the government hasn't always been honest about that. In the Valerie Plame case, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald jailed a New York Times reporter, Judith Miller -- to no purpose, as the evidence later revealed.

As journalists, we understand the perpetual dance between source and reporter.

The reporter's pushback is identifying the source's level of authority while shielding his identity. "A person who asked not to be identified" could be the guy behind you at the 7-Eleven. A good reporter negotiates with the source to close the circle -- from "administration official" to "senior administration official" -- to maximize credibility.

A good reporter also understands that anonymous sources almost always have agendas. Leaks can make someone look good -- or make someone else look bad. It's neither offensive nor wrong to remember that, too.

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