June 28, 2017

Q&A: Confront and Conceal author David Sanger

“There’s nothing ‘childish’ about raising issues of great public import”

By Paul Starobin

JULY 2, 20121853 WORDS

Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power | By David E. Sanger | Crown | 476 pages, $28.00

Every White House keeps secrets, especially when it comes to national security. It’s the job of the press to learn those secrets and reveal them, unless—and it’s a big unless—the press is convinced that doing so will harm the country. In his new book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, David E. Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, navigates this tricky terrain in an effort to tell the public as much as he possibly can without jeopardizing active U.S. operations or the lives of those people involved in them.

Confront and Conceal, parts of which were excerpted in the Times, is rich in revelations: a detailed account of “Olympic Games,” a US-Israeli initiative to use a cyber-weapon to disrupt and delay Iran’s nuclear program; a look at American attempts to locate Osama bin Laden through a “highly classified” technique involving “traceable” digital cameras; the nugget that the National Security Agency “routinely taps” the cell phones of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence. Sanger’s reporting is based, in part, on conversations with Obama administration policymakers and intelligence officials.

Sanger, who has reported on White Houses going back to the Clinton administration, has been applauded for his tenacity—and taken to task for spilling too many beans. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan decried a climate of indiscretion in which she depicted Sanger as too willing a participant. “Why is this happening? In part because at our highest level in politics, government and journalism, Americans continue to act as if we are talking only to ourselves,” Noonan wrote. “There is something childish in it: Knowing secrets is cool, and telling them is cooler.” Meanwhile, the Justice Department, under fire from Capitol Hill, has appointed two prosecutors to trace the leaks that inform the Sanger book. Sanger himself conceivably could be called to testify.

From his vacation home in the Vermont mountains, Sanger spoke with me over the phone about the uproar over his book, his reporting methods, and the broader themes that illuminate Confront and Conceal, which stands out as the most comprehensive and penetrating account available anywhere of Obama’s national-security policies.

Paul Starobin: The central theme of the book is that President Obama has established a new “light footprint” strategy as a means of asserting American power around the world—a strategy that can be called “confront and conceal,” with a reliance on covert techniques of warfare, such as cyber-weapons, drones, and special-operations forces. This is opposed to a strategy of putting large numbers of boots on the ground in hotspots or not intervening at all. In what sense do you mean that President Obama’s use of American power is “surprising,” as is said in the book’s subtitle?

David Sanger: Before Obama’s election, the right referred to him as a “community organizer,” which was phraseology or a code word for “not qualified to be commander in chief” and “not tough enough.” And the left referred to him as someone who would rely almost entirely on engagement. The national-security policy that has emerged from the first three years of President Obama’s time in office has surprised both his critics and his supporters. This book is about the surprises.

PS: Did you feel surprised?

DS: This is a very pragmatic, tell-me-what-we-need-to-do-to-get-it-done crowd. It may be the least ideological administration I’ve covered. In the degree [of the relative absence of ideology] it surprised me.

PS: It’s clear that in this book you’re harvesting the fruit of a longtime cultivation of sources. These people are part of permanent Washington, and so are you. With a source like [national security advisor] Tom Donilon, did you have an agreement with him at the outset of the book—that he was going to be a kind of sounding board? How does it work with someone like that?

DS: There were no agreements with anyone who is quoted in the book.

PS: Did Donilon or other sources get to read a draft of what you were preparing?

DS: No.

PS: But as you’ve said, there were parts of the manuscript that the government asked you to withdraw or omit certain details.

DS: That was almost entirely limited to the Olympic Games and Iran portions of the book. [In a footnote in the book, Sanger acknowledges that “some details” on the “traceable” digital cameras program were omitted “at the request of government officials.”]

PS: How did the government know what the details in the manuscript might be?

DS: I went to them, to the government—I am not going to be any more specific about who in the government—and I said, this is what I have. This is very standard New York Times practice. Exactly what we did when we handled the Wikileaks material in 2010. If there are concerns about ongoing operations, lives that would be endangered, or future operations, we tell them, ‘let’s talk about that now before it’s published.’

PS: I actually hate this amorphous term, “the government.”

DS: I discussed the issues with officials whom I thought would be knowledgeable on the subject. I suspected that there could be some sensitivities. Almost all of their concerns were of a technical nature.

PS: What’s your response to Peggy Noonan—her column saying that there was something “childish” about your disclosures of national-security secrets in the book?

DS: I saw that. I profoundly disagreed with it. There is nothing ‘childish’ about raising issues of great public import, and how we conduct ourselves in overt and covert wars is a central question in any democracy. At the same time, I don’t think that there are any people more aware than reporters covering national security for The Timesand elsewhere that whatever is published these days is published around the world. And I was acutely aware that I was writing this book for an international audience.

Let me reinforce a point that I didn’t see in her column. Let’s go to the key disclosure that has people so intently interested, which is Olympic Games. How was it that the Iranians learn that the Natanz enrichment center was under cyber-attack? Did they learn it from David Sanger’s articles? I don’t think so. They learned it in 2010 when the [computer] worm escaped from the Natanz enrichment center and thanks to an error in programming ended up being replicated around the world. At that moment, the whole world knew Iran was the target of a cyber-attack. And the Iranians publicly attributed the attack to the US and to Israel.

PS: The overriding concern of Noonan and others is that Obama administration officials massively leaked to you for this book. I’d like to read you something that C.L. Sulzberger, a former chief foreign correspondent and columnist for The New York Times, once wrote on this very topic. “Rule A for a newspaperman,” Sulzberger said, “is that ‘leaks’ are the food of the trade; and over the years I have found that, as with the best drinks, the leak always fizzes from the top. The desire for indiscretion at the upper level seems compelling.” That’s about right, don’t you think?

DS: It was certainly not my experience in this book. This whole story developed from the bottom up. I don’t like the phrase “leaks,” because it conveys, in some sense, that you’re sitting on your back porch sipping an iced tea and someone calls you up and says, “Do you want to meet in a garage? I have this file for you on this highly classified program.” In 30 years at The New York Times, that has never happened to me. It happens in the movies, and I guess it happened to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, but it never happened to me.

The best way to report these [stories], I find, is from the very ground level up, so that by the time you end up going to the government, you basically have the entire story, and my experience in the past is that if government officials contribute it is usually to try to deduct things from the story rather than to add to them.

PS: Still, it’s clear that many senior administration officials talked to you. Why?

DS: I think it is pretty self-evident that they are making the argument that the president acted decisively and in their view rightly. I would not say that that is a unique characteristic of the Obama administration. Throughout the Bush administration, how many tick-tocks did you read about decisions to invade Afghanistan, to invade Iraq? It was exactly the same thing.

PS: So it’s basically a sophisticated form of public relations and image building?

DS: Yes, I think it’s a sophisticated form of trying to portray whoever the president is, Democrat or Republican, as a strong leader. If you’re a sophisticated correspondent, and have been doing this for a while, you recognize that for what it is. That isn’t to say that the facts you gather along the way are wrong.

PS: You’re based in Washington, and I have the impression, from reading the book, of a reporter who is extremely well plugged into the highest levels of Washington policymaking. Yet we know there is this phenomenon of groupthink in places like Washington. How can you avoid groupthink? How can you escape the collective wisdom of the community from washing over you and influencing your own judgments, whether consciously or not?

DS: It’s a constant challenge. There is a huge amount of groupthink in Washington. You have to guard against it all the time. The only thing that I’ve found that works is getting out and traveling a fair bit so that you’re getting an entirely different view.

I’ll give you an example. From Washington there is a view that President Obama reacted very quickly to the Tahrir Square uprising. By Washington standards, he decided to abandon a longtime ally in Mubarak and back the uprising at record speed, just in a matter of weeks. I sort of went along with that assumption. Then I got to Egypt for reporting on the book, and went out one night with a number of twenty-somethings who had been out in Tahrir Square. And their view was entirely the opposite—that Obama had taken far too long, that he had dithered. And they felt somewhat permanently alienated from him.

So the only way I know to combat the groupthink of Washington is to go out and have these conversations.

PS: Are you feeling at any legal risk because of the leaks investigations?

DS: I think most of the investigations don’t appear to be focused on journalists.

PS: Have you hired a lawyer?

DS: The Times has people who handle all of this, as does Random House [publisher of Confront and Conceal].

PS: This book is a follow-on to your first volume, The Inheritance, on Obama’s national-security decision making. Is there a third volume on the way?

DS: [Laughing.] I haven’t given it a moment’s thought.

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