Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Of leaks and such

You can never be entirely sure of the motivation of a government official leaking to you, even when they tell you why they are giving you the information.

030305-D-2987S-033
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld (left) and Commander, Central Command Gen. Tommy Franks, U.S. Army, listen to a question at the close of a Pentagon press conference on March 5, 2003.  Rumsfeld and Franks gave reporters an operational update and fielded questions on the possible conflict in Iraq. DoD photo by Helene C. Stikkel.  (Released)
030305-D-2987S-033 Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld (left) and Commander, Central Command Gen. Tommy Franks, U.S. Army, listen to a question at the close of a Pentagon press conference on March 5, 2003. Rumsfeld and Franks gave reporters an operational update and fielded questions on the possible conflict in Iraq. DoD photo by Helene C. Stikkel. (Released)
030305-D-2987S-033 Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld (left) and Commander, Central Command Gen. Tommy Franks, U.S. Army, listen to a question at the close of a Pentagon press conference on March 5, 2003. Rumsfeld and Franks gave reporters an operational update and fielded questions on the possible conflict in Iraq. DoD photo by Helene C. Stikkel. (Released)

 

You can never be entirely sure of the motivation of a government official leaking to you, even when they tell you why they are giving you the information.

But in my experience of 35 years of reporting, most of them in Washington, the majority of leaks seem not to be personal but professional. That is, an Air Force colonel in charge of one aspect of an acquisition program feels that a member of Congress is being unfair to that program because that member has in his district the headquarters of a competing firm that wanted the contract. But he doesn’t want to end his career by antagonizing that member. Or a congressional staffer feels that counter sea mine warfare is being stiffed in the defense budget (it always is) and gives you the documentation on the Navy’s painful shortfalls in that area.

 

You can never be entirely sure of the motivation of a government official leaking to you, even when they tell you why they are giving you the information.

But in my experience of 35 years of reporting, most of them in Washington, the majority of leaks seem not to be personal but professional. That is, an Air Force colonel in charge of one aspect of an acquisition program feels that a member of Congress is being unfair to that program because that member has in his district the headquarters of a competing firm that wanted the contract. But he doesn’t want to end his career by antagonizing that member. Or a congressional staffer feels that counter sea mine warfare is being stiffed in the defense budget (it always is) and gives you the documentation on the Navy’s painful shortfalls in that area.

My point is that most leaks are institutional in nature, not personal. The only time I can remember getting a lot of personal leaks was when Donald Rumsfeld was defense secretary. His heavy-handed manner and shoddy handling of the Iraq war antagonized a lot of senior officers. I was at the Washington Post at the time.

Late one afternoon at the Post, my desk phone rang. Picking up the receiver, I heard the voice of a general I knew. He was chuckling. “Hey Tom, I thought you’d like this,” he began. “You know what Rummy just said in the Tank at the end of the meeting? ‘And I DON’T want to read all this in tomorrow’s Washington Post.’”

I reached for my long reporter’s notebook and began to take notes.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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