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posted: 6/13/2012 5:00 AM

What the leakers have wrought

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Pity the poor Obama administration leakers. They impart their much-cherished secrets to make their man look good and then, at the first chirp of criticism, are ordered to confess their (possible) crimes by the very same president they were seeking to please. In this, they are a bit like the male praying mantis. He does as asked and then the female bites his head off.

What is remarkable about the recent leaks is the coincidence -- it can only be that -- that they all made the president look good, heroic, decisive, strong, and even a touch cruel -- born, as the birthers long suspected, not in Hawaii but possibly on the lost planet Krypton. The leak that displayed all these Obamian attributes was the one that said the president personally approves the assassinations of terrorists abroad. He gives his OK and the bad guys are dispatched via missiles from drones.

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The New York Times, which broke this particular story, said it had interviewed "three dozen of his (Obama's) current and former advisers," which suggests the sort of mass lawbreaking not seen since Richard Nixon took out after commies, liberals, conservationists, anti-war protesters, Jews and, of course, leakers. The two U.S. attorneys assigned to finding the leakers may have to use the facilities at Guantanamo, which, as luck would have it, are somehow still open. Of course, the chances of a successful prosecution are slim, leak cases being hard to prove. Journalists, unlike the mob, still adhere to the Mafia code of silence, omertà. We are, at heart, traditionalists.

All administrations leak what they want when they want. Occasionally, some killjoy screams something about national security, but the republic somehow survives and the secret is usually only a secret to the American people, not to the enemy. This is undoubtedly the case with the recent disclosure regarding the use of a computer worm to wreak havoc with the Iranian nuclear program. The Iranians were onto it.

The leak that troubles me concerns the killing of suspected or actual terrorists. The triumphalist tone of the leaks -- the Tarzan-like chest-beating of various leakers -- not only is in poor taste but shreds a long-standing convention that, in these matters, the president has deniability. The president of the United States is not The Godfather.

Of course, we have always known that the president, as commander in chief and all of that, is where the proverbial buck stops. But for the longest time, a polite fiction was maintained that distanced the president from what, after all, is murder, and it helped somewhat in protecting him. Deniability is always a fiction, but it provides some space between the president and his orders, and does not plaster the presidential face on an act of extreme -- and possibly illegal -- violence. Presidents need protection from retaliation -- not just in office, but for the rest of their lives. After all, the poor man's drone is the suicide bomber.

The present and former government officials who leaked to the Times as well as to Newsweek's Daniel Klaidman are forgiven if they thought they were doing the boss's bidding. After all, the president was serenely mum when the stories first hit. The White House did not react until some pesky Republicans, the reliably outraged John McCain, in particular, yelled bloody murder. The leakers had to have noted that a torrent of leaks followed the killing of Osama bin Laden, with Obama characterized as just this side of personally dispatching the man with a butter knife. The Times' David Sanger reports that the bragging got to the point that then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told national security adviser Tom Donilon to "shut ... up." Pakistan, it turns out, did not want its nose rubbed in its failure to notice bin Laden living in Abbottabad -- or, for that matter, the SEALs coming to get him.

Killing is a serious matter. The death of an American citizen (Anwar al-Awlaki) is deeply troubling (the government asked the government if it was legal, and the government said it was). For this as well as other assassinations, there could be blowback.

Assassination by drone has its charms -- it has severely degraded al-Qaida -- and war, after all, is war. But I wonder if those presidents who knew war -- -- a Truman, an Eisenhower, a Kennedy -- would themselves boast about killing or let others do it for them. The leakers set out to blow a mighty trumpet for Obama. It came out, however, like a shrill pennywhistle.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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