While it is debatable whether President Obama should be blamed for the lapses that led to the unprecedented compromise of massive amounts of classified information to the WikiLeaks organization, it is entirely appropriate to hold him accountable for the subsequent performance of his administration. But as with other threats and crises during his presidency, Mr. Obama and his team have dithered rather than act decisively, and again demonstrated they have little idea of how to the defend America.
On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder made the observation that the theft of hundreds of thousands of classified files and their ongoing disclosure by WikiLeaks is “ultimately not helpful in any way.” To this deeply perceptive assessment, Mr. Holder added that “I authorized just last week a number of things to be done so that we can, hopefully, get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable as they should be.”
Just last week?
It is worth stepping back through the sequence of events in this case to see just how inattentive President Obama and his team have been as this slow-moving train-wreck has impacted our national security and compromised U.S. information sources and partners around the globe.
In mid-May, Army Private First Class (PFC) Bradley Manning, suspected to be the source of classified information for Wikileaks, was arrested.
- On July 26, Wikileaks began releasing the 91,000 stolen Afghanistan war-related documents it held, many of which were classified.
- On October 22, Wikileaks released nearly 400,000 stolen U.S. government documents related to the Iraq war.
- On November 28, Wikileaks began leaking the first of approximately 250,000 stolen State Department cables.
The day before, the Obama administration performed its one and only known direct act in trying to stop WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange from his political warfare against the United States: the State Department’s top lawyer sent a firm but respectful letter to Mr. Assange and his lawyer in London.
What else did President Obama and his national security team do in the approximately 28 weeks between the arrest of PFC Manning and when Attorney General Holder claimed he authorized “a number of things”? Virtually nothing, aside from issuing public warnings about the consequences of the leaks and providing briefings to foreign governments about possible embarrassment from the cables.
How would a White House that is more serious about national security have acted?
As soon as PFC Manning was under serious suspicion, and certainly after he was arrested, a thorough investigation should have uncovered the scope of his alleged theft of government information. In turn, the president and his senior national security advisors should have directed immediate action to limit the damage.
At a minimum, this should have involved investigators discerning whom Manning communicated with from any computers, phones and other property to which he had access. From there, potential recipients of classified material should have been induced to surrender the material—ideally through voluntary action.
Those who did not cooperate, probably including Mr. Assange, could have been charged with espionage or targeted using any number of the tools that our Constitution and laws place at the disposal of our president to defend us.
This did not happen after PFC Manning’s arrest—and the American people deserve to know why.
It also did not happen after the first mass release by WikiLeaks in July, the second mass release in October, and still has not happened after the third mass release has begun.
Additional damage to our national security could be prevented if President Obama were to cease his dithering and take action. So far, WikiLeaks has published only about 1,000 of the 250,000 State Department cables it says it has. There is a significant rationale to act immediately, both to stop further damage and to set an example to other would-be political warfare organizations targeting America.
Furthermore, while Mr. Assange is currently being detained by British authorities on an unrelated matter, there is no certainty this will last beyond December 14—nor does it necessarily halt the work of the overall WikiLeaks organization. Charging Mr. Assange with espionage involvement or designating him as an enemy combatant is long overdue, as are governmental actions against the organization’s employees, communications-providers, financial sources and other accomplices.
But, as with every other crisis of his administration, the serial assault on U.S. security by WikiLeaks has been met by a President Obama who appears unable to grasp the seriousness of the threat or how to marshal the tools at his disposal for our defense. Rather than a commander-in-chief, we have a litigator-in-chief—and not a particularly speedy one at that.
America finds itself with a president transmitting a dangerous signal of weakness and incompetence in a world where our adversaries become emboldened by American weakness, whether perceived or real.
The young senator who entered the Oval Office with no experience to be commander in chief has failed to learn on the job, and dangerous foreign threats draw ever nearer.
Christian Whiton is the president of the Hamilton Foundation. He was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration and a policy advisor on the Giuliani and Gingrich presidential campaigns. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books 2013).