MARCH 25, 2010
President Obama’s second nominee to be Army General Counsel headed the legal department at a major newspaper when it published stories that compromised the nation’s top-secret counterterrorism programs, questioning his ability to protect sensitive national security information if he’s confirmed.
The president’s first pick to be the Army’s chief lawyer, Donald Remy, withdrew after getting in trouble for omitting that for six years he was a senior attorney and top executive at collapsed mortgage giant Fannie Mae. Remy suspiciously described the scandal-plagued mortgage firm, now operated by the government, as “a major U.S. company” on his resume and got busted during congressional confirmation hearings.
Obama’s new guy, Solomon Watson, has a few skeletons in his closet as well. The Vietnam veteran spent three decades at the New York Times and was the paper’s chief legal officer in 2005 and 2006 when it published controversial articles that disclosed classified information about post 9/11 counterterrorism programs.
The first story focused on a top secret intelligence program, conducted by the National Security Agency, to intercept terrorists’ electronic communications worldwide. The second exposed a program, aimed at tracking terrorist funds, involving a Belgium-based banking cooperative that secretly provided U.S. counterterrorism agents with access to databases of international financial transfers.
Both pieces jeopardized—or at the very least compromised—national security, say lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee who grilled Watson this week at a confirmation hearing. A few questioned whether Watson could be trusted to protect classified government secrets if he gets the job.
Watson claims he was not involved in printing the articles and that the newspaper’s publisher and top editor made the decision without consulting him, even though it was a touchy legal matter and he headed the legal department. After being repeatedly pressed by lawmakers, Watson finally criticized the decision to publish the compromising stories, saying he would not have done it had it been his decision to make.
One skeptical member of the Senate panel believes Watson should have done more to prevent the paper’s leadership from publishing sensitive material if in fact he opposed it. His failure to speak up would seem to be a tacit approval for the paper’s action, the senator said.
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