President Barack Obama has the surveillance leak response down pat: Wait a couple of days after a rough story, then tell reporters most of what they already know.
What the White House hasn’t done is get ahead of the story.
(NSA presser highlights video below)
The administration’s pattern was in full effect Wednesday, when it got lapped by the National Security Agency news cycle. While three senior officials were explaining newly declassified documents that were largely reported by the Washington Post last week, reporters wanted to know details about a fresh Wall Street Journal NSA scoop from the morning.
Basic crisis management dictates that you push out as much information about the story as possible as soon as possible, but the White House’s public relations effort has been complicated by its inability to predict the next wrinkle to the story. It doesn’t know what revelations are coming next — or when.
That makes it difficult for the president to maintain credibility when telling the American people they have nothing to fear about the programs.
“This is a secret system and it has to be secret, but it depends on public trust and credibility,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told POLITICO. “The president is doing his best to try to sustain it, but the nature of the disclosures and drip-by-drip revelations at a certain point are greater than the sum of their parts.”
It can take several weeks to declassify FISA-related documents because of the inter-agency cooperation that often is required. Administration officials have been left to complain that what’s leaked hasn’t told the whole story without being able to tell the whole story themselves, and waiting days after the fact to add context is far too long for an effective response.
“The administration is full steam ahead at the president’s directive that we declassify and make public as much information as possible,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said. “But declassifying things doesn’t happen instantaneously. These things are classified for a reason, and it is incumbent upon us, even as we move quickly, to take into account all the national security interests that might be affected, whether they be legal or operational or otherwise.”
The delayed response often reveals itself in comical ways.
Take Wednesday: Senior officials from the National Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence held a 35-minute call, on background, with reporters to discuss documents showing NSA for three years collected emails that were “wholly domestic” and entirely unrelated to terrorism. But when predictable questions came about the Journal report that the NSA’s surveillance network can cover up to 75 percent of U.S. Internet traffic, the officials clammed up.
“I’m really here to talk about the documents being released today,” one of the officials said.
Another chimed in: “We’re here to talk about these documents and that’s not covered in these documents so we’re just not in a position to talk about it.”
“We’re really here to talk about the documents that are being released today, not the Wall Street Journal article,” another said.
Hours later, shortly before 11 p.m. Wednesday, the NSA and ODNI released a joint statement to reporters responding to “press reports based on an article published in today’s Wall Street Journal,” but made no specific quibble with the Journal story itself. The statement ticked through what it described as misleading characterizations emanating from the Journal’s report.
But by then dozens, if not hundreds, of stories had been written based on the Journal’s reporting.
“At some level they become a piñata out there where they’re having to answer questions and they have no control over the flow of information,” said Clinton White House press shop veteran Chris Lehane.
“What you’re really trying to do is isolate this and control it and given the dynamics at play, you’ve got to find some vehicle to try to get ahead of it,” Lehane added. “They don’t know what’s coming tomorrow, other than the fact that they should be aware that something is coming tomorrow. So how do you deal with that reality?”
Obama’s own efforts to get ahead of the story have fluctuated between arguing that he is similarly outraged about the state of NSA surveillance, telling Americans there is nothing to fear and belittling Edward Snowden’s importance while the administration sought to return the former NSA contract worker to the U.S.
Weeks later on his Africa tour, Obama downplayed Snowden’s importance even as U.S. officials were lobbying Russia to return him to the United States.
“No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” Obama said then.
And when Obama held a pre-vacation news conference Aug. 9 to reveal a surveillance “reform” package largely dependent on congressional cooperation, he didn’t win himself many points from privacy advocates who have demanded more transparency from the FISA programs.
The drip-drip-drip and pinballing messaging doesn’t help relationships with the growing chorus of Capitol Hill’s NSA skeptics.
On Wednesday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) promised a hearing. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) demanded NSA director Keith Alexander brief the entire Senate. And Blumenthal called for an independent “special advocate” to oversee the agency.
Privacy advocates also say Wednesday’s document rollout wasn’t all it seemed. Some were released in response to a lawsuit from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and not last week’s Post story, a senior administration official noted, adding the White House should get some credit for releasing documents beyond what was required by the EFF litigation.
“Declassification has lagged behind public disclosure, which is the opposite of the way it’s supposed to be,” said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “You’re supposed to learn things from declassification, not have what you already know be formally confirmed.”
And even when the administration tries to get ahead, it’s not always easy.
At his news conference, Obama said the NSA would put in place a “full-time civil liberties and privacy officer,” release legal rationale for some surveillance collection and build a website to serve as a hub for declassified documents.
That website, revealed Wednesday, turned out to be a Tumblr that went live nearly an hour after the conference call to explain the documents it contained finished.
By then, the documents had appeared first on the website of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
NSA PRESSER HIGHLIGHTS
Reid J. Epstein writes for Politico