Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Leaks Happen

An immutable rule in Washington – as it should be elsewhere – is "never put anything in print you don't want to see on the front page tomorrow morning."

With that in mind, I would like to explain some realities, with the help of the newspaper to those who hear that the "liberal media" jeopardize national security, cost the lives of soldiers and commit treason when they publish leaked documents. In New York Observer recent months, leaked documents have told of secret CIA prisons across Europe and secret illegal wiretapping, made public an official U.S. assessment that the current puppet prime minister of Iraq is incompetent and exposed Donald Rumsfeld's real views that the war is not going well. Note that four years ago, leaks were supportive of the administration's bogus claim of weapons of mass destruction.

This is not about a perfidious press. It is about someone in power and with access to documents doesn't like a policy and wants to stir up public pressure to change it, needs to cover his ass to show he was right all along, or wants to send a message that for diplomatic reasons he can't say in public. It is not a case of
reporters, or even officials, stealing "government documents" – a logical impossibility given that all government documents are public by nature.

Yet from Watergate forward, whenever there is a really good leak, the administration in power screams in outrage, subjects bureaucrats to lie detectors, sets up FBI investigations to find the disloyal rat who is serving the interest of the enemy, and beats the press for purposes of winning elections.

The dirty little secret, however, is that in more cases than not, the leak is official; that is, a high government official purposely is giving the Washington Post or New York Times the goods, knowing that even upon pain of jail, reporters will not rat them out.

Presidents, themselves, leak. Sometimes the leak even makes the leaker look a little bad, in order to give the resulting news story a veneer of credibility. (The best advice in crisis public relations is to give up a little bad news to prevent the public from finding out the really bad news.)

Jimmy Carter, however, could not leak straight. At a private White House dinner in 1980, when faced with a primary election challenge from Ted Kennedy, he boasted to some Democratic lawmakers, "I'll whip his ass" if he decides to run. That would be a good headline any day. But out of loyalty, the politicos kept silent. Finally, a White House spokesman had to leak to the press what Carter had said privately for public consumption. He was trying to send a message that could have been conveyed by dialing 202-224-3121, the Capitol.

And in recent weeks, the reptilian George Will tried to shock the nation by reporting that Sen.-elect James Webb was rude to the president at a White House event after Bush asked how his son was doing while in combat in Iraq. You can be sure that the leak of a private conversation at a private event did not come from Webb. It came from the Bushies. I wish Webb would have responded by asking Bush how his daughters were doing while partying in Argentina instead of serving their country.

Anyway, by way of explanation about how the news media operate hand-in-brass-knuckled fist with government, remember this: Unlike shit, leaks don't just happen.

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