The Art of Leaking

Barack Obama's administration is about to find out how bad anonymous sniping can get. But luckily for the president, that might not be such a bad thing.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Gerald Ford summed up how many U.S. presidents must feel about leaks: They’re a "real pain." They might throw off your timing and frame issues in a way that is not of your choosing. They might narrow the number of people from whom you seek advice and force you to hurry actions in order to maintain surprise. Barack Obama, just now heading into Year Two, has already had an unpleasant taste of how anonymous sources can cause headaches, most notably in the run-up to his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, as unnamed advocates and opponents of a "surge" duked it out in the press, and in the wake of the Christmas Day bombing attempt, as agencies rushed to blame one another for the security lapse.

But Obama hasn’t seen anything yet. In Year One, new appointees like to think of themselves as on the same team and may even like each other, and Obama’s people have an above-average record in this regard. In Year Two, expect to see a sharp uptick in the blame game, and other perilous intragovernment sports. The weapon of choice? You guessed it: the leak.

In any administration, it takes a little time for fault lines to appear, both in policy and personality terms. None of the famous rivalries of yore — Henry Kissinger and William P. Rogers, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cyrus Vance, George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger — were apparent immediately. But appear they did — and will again. The upper reaches of an administration are never wanting for personal clashes. And, of course, blame increases in direct proportion with actions taken or not taken.

An assistant secretary of state, Langhorne A. Motley, once defined a leak as a "premature unauthorized partial disclosure." This distinguishes it from the "premature authorized disclosure," which is a plant and is part of a president’s own bag of tricks for floating potentially controversial policies and gauging public reaction.

Leaks are different. They’re rogue. They rarely come from a press office, even though this seems like a logical place to look. Press secretaries have a need to appear evenhanded. Playing favorites with reporters can have unpleasant long-term consequences in trying to maintain the respect of the press corps.

As a rule, bureaucrats don’t engage in risky media games either. They know it’s the leaker, not the leakee, who’s breaking the law if classified material is involved. (What is much more common, at least within the intelligence community, is to defend one’s agency against scurrilous attacks by the enemy — that is, a rival agency. Information often arrives in print via a good-old-boy network sourced as "according to former officials.")

This leaves political appointees as the prime leakers. In other words, it is the president’s own men who are most often sharing state secrets. As James Reston loved to write in his New York Times column, a government is "the only known vessel that leaks from the top."

There is no better way to discover the circuitous channels through which  "unauthorized" information can find its way into the media — or is kept out of the public spotlight — than by a careful reading of the late Robert Novak’s The Prince of Darkness, a massive, 661-page tome in which the columnist broke all confidences and revealed all sources. When, for instance, former President George H.W. Bush wished to reach Novak, he did so indirectly through a functionary (people at high levels require deniability). For James Baker, Ronald Reagan’s powerful chief of staff, Novak felt it necessary to negotiate a "mutual nonaggression pact." As for Karl Rove, the columnist’s "grade A-plus source" in George W. Bush’s White House?  "What you did not find in my columns was criticism of Karl Rove," Novak reveals.

Some leaks are meant to be a straightforward pitch for or against a public policy. Leakers often pass along closely held documents, like that "confidential" McChrystal assessment of troop needs for Afghanistan, which found its way into Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward’s eager hands. Other leaks are meant to settle grudges. But most simply satisfy the leaker’s sense of self-importance. Washington is full of people who love to pass along a good tale.

Yet annoying as they may be, it is rarely worth the effort to plug the leaks. Reagan learned that the hard way after the leaks in his administration turned into a flood. "Reagan Ordered Sweeping FBI Probe of Staff for Source of Leak," the Washington Post‘s front page read on Nov. 23, 1983. But just a few weeks later on Dec. 13, the Post reported, "Justice Probe Fails to Disclose Source of Leak." What went wrong? Turns out, many presidents are more leaked for than about. The latter piece quotes a White House official noting, "there is no evidence that reporters were told anything we didn’t want them to know."

Some go as far as to say that leaks are beneficial. Political scientist Richard Neustadt, an advisor to John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon B. Johnson’s administrations, elevated leaks to "a vital role in the functioning of our democracy." After all, aren’t these "informal communications" through the media a faster, more nuanced way for the secretary of state to let the secretary of defense know what’s really bugging her? It’s certainly simpler than negotiating through the bureaucracy.

I’d love to buy this, but I can’t. My own case studies show leaks to be too episodic and subject to multiple interpretations to be a useful way of communicating from one agency or individual to another. Still, we do learn things that we might not have otherwise known (and there are times when what we imagine are leaks are merely clever reporters carefully putting the various pieces of a story together).

The good news for presidents is that there is little evidence that leaks have endangered U.S. national security. Mostly, they cause embarrassment. Even Kissinger, not a man to shrug off embarrassment, ultimately concluded, "Most of the leaks — if you are philosophical about it — go away. I mean, they’re unpleasant, but so what? If you ignore them, most of them are not of that huge significance." Obama must surely hope as much.

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