On Monday, Washington Post investigative reporter nonpareil Bob Woodward caused a tremor inside the Beltway with an exclusive account of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's 66-page report to President Barack Obama, warning that without the deployment of more US troops, the administration's Afghanistan policy will fail.
There has followed the usual Washington parlor game of pundits and journalists speculating about who leaked the report to Woodward, and why. By Tuesday the ascendant theory was that the report was leaked by Pentagon insiders who support McChrystal's call for additional troops and are annoyed at the White House for seeming to delay action on the General's recommendation.
Could be. But what caught my eye was the copy of the redacted report that ran with the Post's story. Download the file and you won't see excerpts of a classified document intended for the President's consumption. Rather, you will see what appears to be an officially declassified version of that report, with multiple deletions of presumably classified material indicated by the term "REDACTION" in caps.
Woodward, in his story, says this about the provenance of the document:
"Senior administration officials asked The Post over the weekend to withhold brief portions of the assessment that they said could compromise future operations. A declassified version of the document, with some deletions made at the government's request, appears at washingtonpost.com. "
Now, it's not unheard-of for government officials to be given an advance look at a Woodward blockbuster so they can have a chance to alert him and Post editors to information, not necessarily essential to the news story, whose revelation could compromise intelligence "sources and methods" or otherwise harm bona fide national security interests. And maybe that's all that happened in this case.
But it is odd, and I think highly unusual, for the government, as a result of such an exchange, to provide a reporter with an officially declassified edition of the report, "with some deletions made at the government's request," to use Woodward's words, for publication in a newspaper or on a newspaper's website.
Classified documents are not declassified by leakers acting anonymously, they are declassified by identifiable government officials acting with authorization. That means the document was given to Woodward either by the White House or by a Defense Department official acting at the direction of the White House and almost certainly with Obama's approval.
So, why would President Obama want to "leak" this report to Woodward?
Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is Executive Editor of the First Amendment Coalition. www.firstamendmentcoalition.org