Leak week: Obama team shows signs of strain as anonymous officials take gripes to media
WASHINGTON – The White House ship is springing some leaks.
Trouble-making personnel inside the Obama administration have taken to the press at a steady clip in recent days to badmouth senior officials, as well as a key American ally. And as President Obama enters his seventh year in office, the whispers and potshots are running the risk of undermining the once-cohesive image of the "no drama Obama" team.
Whether it's a few leaky apples or the sign of a larger morale problem is unclear. But several stories with sharp-edged quotes attributed to unnamed administration officials have culminated in an embarrassing week for the White House -- complete with plenty of backpedaling and clarifications to assert a polished narrative that all is well.
But the tarnish may be showing.
Frustrated officials have started to air their grievances on everything from the current relationship between the U.S. and Israel to the military response in Syria.
The latest batch of stories started on Monday, when The Atlantic magazine quoted an anonymous official describing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “chickenshit.” The comment follows weeks of heated exchanges between Netanyahu’s government and Washington over disputed settlement-building.
“The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,” the official was quoted as saying.
The article caused a furor, as Republicans demanded accountability for the anonymous insult to America's ally. White House and State Department officials insisted the remark does not reflect the administration's views, and White House officials reportedly were calling lawmakers to hammer home that point.
Not everyone was buying the administration's contrite tone. Fox News contributor Judith Miller suggested that comment was "authorized," to "send a message to Israel."
But other comments clearly were not green-lighted by the White House. In the latest episode, ticked-off military officials told The Daily Beast they were frustrated by the tight constraints the White House is placing on them in the war against the Islamic State in Syria.
Disgruntled officers and civilian Pentagon leaders reportedly claimed that National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who is calling much of the shots on U.S. operations in Syria, is “obsessed with the tiniest of details” and referred to the process as “manic.”
The White House reportedly has instructed the military to keep the war contained within policy limits which include restrictions on which rebels can be trained to fight and what their roles will be in the field. The sources said Rice’s micro-managing of basic operational details is tying their hands and holding up progress.
Earlier, on Wednesday, The New York Times reported that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also was a critic of the White House strategy in Syria. Hagel recently wrote a memo to Rice warning that the current strategy was too unfocused and didn’t clearly address U.S. intentions and how it relates to Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, the Times reported.
Hagel did not back off his comments on Thursday, saying, “We owe the president and we owe the National Security Council our best thinking on this. And it has to be honest and it has to be direct.”
The perception of a harmonious Cabinet was further dented following another claim in the Times article that officials routinely joked Secretary of State John Kerry is like the astronaut Sandra Bullock plays in the movie “Gravity,” and that he’s “somersaulting through space, un-tethered from the White House.”
The article seemed to suggest that Obama’s once tight-knit circle of confidants has come apart in recent months as more and more staff members resign or retire. Personnel shakeups have led some to question the effectiveness of the president’s crisis-management teams.
The comments prompted Earnest and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to come to Kerry’s defense. Sort of.
“Those of us working every day at [the] White House aren’t distracted by sometimes colorful, sometimes problematic, and in the case of Sandra Bullock, sometimes amusing comments,” Earnest told reporters.
McDonough also defended Obama’s chief diplomat, telling Bloomberg Television “that picture of Secretary Kerry is not what I witness.” He added that Obama and Kerry meet regularly and described the relationship as “very solid.”
McDonough also refuted rumors of a rift between Kerry and Rice, insisting they have a collaborative relationship.
Whether the administration is hunting down the officials quoted remains to be seen. Earnest gave no indication there would be a vigorous hunt for the official behind the Netanyahu dig.
The shots aren't just coming from inside the administration, either. On a lighter note, another influential figure badmouthed the president this week -- Michael Jordan.
When asked about the president’s golf game during a recent interview Jordan said, “I’ve never played with Obama, but I would.” He added, “I’d take him out. He’s a hack and I’d be all day playing with him … I never said he wasn’t a great politician. I’m just saying he’s a shi--y golfer.”