The flood of classified information coming out of the Obama White House has grown so large -- and the leaks so important -- that last week there was a bipartisan call for an investigation into the White House's apparent involvement. If it leads to the right kind of investigation, it may be enough to reverse the leaks' intended political effect of boosting the president's chances of reelection.
Last Thursday's call for an investigation into the leaks, made by both chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House Permanent Select Committees on Intelligence, was unprecedented. It must have resulted from the four members' judgment that the leaks have seriously damaged our national security and the ability of our intelligence community to do its job.
The Intelligence Committee leaders' action raised the political heat on the president to such a degree that Attorney General Eric Holder appointed two U.S. attorneys, one from Maryland and one from Washington , D.C., to oversee special investigations by the FBI that were already under way.
But these investigations will drag on and their results won't be known for years. Calls for congressional hearings at which possible leakers and senior White House figures would be called to account continue, but any open hearings would fail over claims that classified information couldn't be disclosed. Questions that demanded details of the administration's internal debates would be blocked by claims of executive privilege. Some pundits, undeterred by history, have called for a revival of the "independent counsel" process of unfond memory.
There is a better process that would produce results sooner than November, and could -- if seized upon by Gov. Romney as leader of the Republican Party -- have the right kind of political effect before the election.
The focus of the leak problem should not only be the questions of who leaked the information and what role the president played in the disclosures. The focus has to be the assessment of how much damage -- and what kinds of damage --the leaks did to our national security.
Every leaker has an agenda. More often than not, and quite evidently in these cases, the agenda is a political one. But for the Republicans to have any impact on the campaign -- and the desired effect of ending the leak campaign -- they have to begin with substance, not politics.
A CNN story attempted to frame the debate on the leaks politically to the exclusion of substance. It quoted Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, who said, "There's a difference between a clean, meaningful leak and a sloppy one that has unintended consequences."
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Brinkley's distinction is drawn solely around the political effects and ignores the real issue. The only difference with which we should be concerned is between a leak that causes no damage to national security and one that does.
That difference is illustrated by the difference between the leak of the CIA employment of Valerie Plame and the string of leaks by the Obama administration -- evidently done with presidential approval -- of the president's "kill list" program and our now-disclosed cyberattack on Iran using the Stuxnet computer worm.
When a significant secret is leaked, the CIA or the Defense Department -- or both -- do what's called a damage assessment to measure the impact of the leak on national security. The damage assessment measures what intelligence operations -- including methods, sources and national security assets such as spy satellites -- were compromised by the leak. Sources -- including spies in other nations -- can be captured and killed or turned into double agents by their exposure. The methods by which we gather and analyze intelligence can be revealed, reducing or even mooting their future value. For example, the capabilities of spy satellites, most of which cost hundreds of millions of dollars, can be negated by being revealed to the people, groups, or nations that they are used against.
Some leaks are politically important but have no effect whatever on the nation's security. The best example of that kind of leak is the Plame Name Blame Game.
The leak by then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to columnist Robert Novak was published in a now-famous column that revealed Valerie Plame's CIA employment and kicked off the media game. It ended up costing millions of tax dollars and cost I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby his job and personal fortune. But the leak was substantively meaningless. Plame was a CIA desk jockey, not a protected intelligence identity involved in covert operations. According to my intelligence community sources, the CIA damage assessment of the Plame name leak judged that it caused no damage whatever to our intelligence community's ability to gather intelligence.
The long investigation -- in which Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald knew early of Armitage's role but never pursued for criminal charges -- was a huge political story that hamstrung the Bush administration for about two years.
The lack of damage was entirely ignored in the media-propelled political firestorm around the leak.
The Obama leak campaign should be judged and acted upon in precisely the opposite way. There will soon be -- if there aren't already -- assessments of the damage done by the leaks of the cyber attack on Iran, the Obama "kill list" program of drone attacks, and the other leaks being managed out of the White House. It is these assessments on which the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and the Romney campaign must focus.
Showy public hearings will not, as I pointed out above, accomplish anything because the White House officials called to testify won't say anything important. They will claim that they cannot answer the important questions either because classified information would be publicly divulged or executive privilege prevents the disclosure of White House internal deliberations. Such hearings would fizzle. Republicans will be left empty-handed and look foolish for their trouble.
Instead, CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta should be called before a joint closed hearing of both intelligence committees to explain their preliminary damage assessments. Waiting for final assessments could take years that the White House shouldn't be allowed.
In those hearings, the committees can learn which sources and methods were compromised. They can learn -- to the extent our intelligence community knows -- how Iran is responding to the disclosures, and how the Pakistani and Afghan governments are changing their behavior toward us as a result of the leaks.
When they learn these things, the committees can disclose their own judgments of how severe the damage is. They can't disclose the details, but they can say that there was damage and characterize whether they believe it was significant.
But that is the limit of what Congress can do. It is up to Mitt Romney, as the leader of the Republican Party, to choose to make the Obama leaks a campaign issue.
So far, Romney has been silent on this and too many other issues. If he chooses to remain silent on the Obama leaks, he will surrender the issue leaving Obama to continue the leaking and gain whatever political advantage within reach. Instead, Romney could and should seize upon the issue. Romney should speak out quickly, joining in the bipartisan call for an investigation and asking the intelligence committees to hold the closed hearings to obtain the assessments of damage.
When -- and if -- the committees hold those hearings, Romney should use whatever they may disclose to make a major speech on the issue, calling the Obama administration to account for its actions against our nation's security. It's all up to Romney: he can be the leader of the Republican Party or sit silent, absorbing the damage to his campaign and ignoring the damage to our national security.