Obama administration playing dangerous game with intelligence leaks

Senator McCain and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney traded insults this week over intelligence leaks – McCain called the Obama White House “grossly irresponsible” to leak classified information for political gain, while Carney called McCain “grossly irresponsible” for even suggesting it.

I’ve been in three presidential administrations, and frankly, leaks are par for the course.

Some insiders leak to make themselves look good, others to curry favor with the press, still others because they disagree with a policy decision and want to expose its flaws. And sometimes it’s vengeance, pure and simple.

When a president orders an investigation to uncover a leaker, he usually ends up regretting it.

I was in the White House when the President Nixon ordered the wiretapping of key members of his staff and the Washington press corps to find out who had divulged secret information about the Vietnam War and later when he later tried to find out who leaked the top-secret Pentagon Papers.  These investigations set in motion the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up and ultimately led to President Nixon’s resignation.

A decade later, when I was a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Pentagon we wanted to turn a new page after the Vietnam-era and wanted to work with reporters about how to keep details of upcoming or ongoing military operations secret.

We organized a small dinner, and posed the problem to some of the fabled reporters and photographers from WWII, the Korean and Vietnam wars. We asked the reporters who were with the troops that stormed the beaches at Normandy whether any of them would have scooped the story of the Invasion. To a man they said no, doing so would have endangered Allied war efforts and risked American lives.

The question we never thought to ask them was what if an administration deliberately leaked classified information that risked exposing intelligence operations.

No one begrudges politicians for doing whatever they can to make themselves look good, and President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for calling for the Bin Laden raid.

But the Obama administration seems to have engaged in a systematic program of leaking the most highly classified information about our successful intelligence operations for its own political gain. It is difficult to come to that conclusion, but consider the following:

- The Bin Laden raid. As then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said at the time, “Frankly…on Sunday, in the Situation Room, we all agreed that we would not release any operational details from the effort to take out Bin Laden. That all fell apart on Monday, the next day.”

He reportedly blasted the Obama’s national security team at the White and suggested a new strategic communications plan, “to shut the f--- up!”

- The Yemeni underwear bomb plot. The administration leaked operational details of the sting operation to the Associated Press before it was competed, according to House Homeland Security Committee Chairman New York Rep. Peter King.

- The cyberwar campaign against Iran’s nuclear program.  Stuxnet, DuQu, Flame. These devastating computer viruses and worms had the Iranians scratching their heads – until details appeared on the front pages of the New York Times. Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned President Obama that “disclosures of this type endanger American lives and undermine America’s national security.”

This pattern of leaks has gotten so serious that Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate have called for investigations.

It is no mean feat in this era of partisanship to get Republicans and Democrats in Congress to agree on anything, but Intelligence Committee leaders feel the leaks are to the point of threatening “imminent and irreparable damage to our national security.”

What’s the harm in a little self-congratulations for successful, even daring military and intelligence operations?  Nothing, if the bragging rights don’t endanger future operations.

But consider whether foreign intelligence services will continue to share classified information with us if doing so risks having their own sources and methods made public. Or whether someone on the inside of a terrorist group will turn informant if he thinks America will blow his cover? Won’t our adversaries and enemies benefit the most from knowing the innermost secrets of how we formulate and carry out raids, cyberattacks and assassinations?

In the mid-1970’s Congress investigated the CIA and pulled back the veil on our intelligence operations.  In revealing excesses, the Senate Committee also revealed names of agents, sources and methods, including the name of our CIA station chief in Greece. Shortly thereafter, Richard Welch was assassinated in a terrorist attack. The CIA’s human intelligence gathering operations were curtailed, morale plummeted and intelligence gathering, especially human intelligence, went into a tailspin. -- Some believe the reason we never saw Al Qaeda in the 1990’s was because we destroyed many of those spy networks in the 1970’s.

The current round of leaks are not only bad policy, in the end they could  be bad politics as well. Americans won’t vote for a team that, in essence, was willing to endanger America’s security in order to score a few more votes.

Kathleen Troia "K.T." McFarland is a Fox News National Security Analyst and host of FoxNews.com's DefCon 3. She is a Distinguished Adviser to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and served in national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. She wrote Secretary of Defense Weinberger’s November 1984 "Principles of War Speech" which laid out the Weinberger Doctrine. Be sure to watch "K.T." every Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET on FoxNews.com's "DefCon3"-- already one of the Web's most watched national security programs.