How a little leak can be a big lie

Dara Purvis - Raw Story Columnist
Published: Saturday April 22, 2006

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"I've constantly expressed my displeasure with leaks, particularly leaks of classified information. . . . If there's a leak out of the administration, I want to know who it is. And if a person has violated law, the person will be taken care of." –President George W. Bush

Leaks are a necessary evil of government. For every unmasking of a Valerie Plame, there is a Deep Throat. Whether you support a particular leak or not is, in many cases, dependent on whether you think the political fallout of the leak helped or hurt your side.

That said, there are certain common understandings about leaks and the role they play in modern politics. Most people understand that leaks and anonymous sources attempt a delicate balance of fundamentally incompatible goals. On the one hand, leakers can be akin to whistleblowers–the Deep Throat model, if you will. Modern government bureaucracy is a prodigious network, and keeping track of stories–particularly ones that government figures would like kept secret–is difficult. People who have a problem with what their own bosses or political party is doing may not be willing to play the public critic themselves, but they might be happy to have someone else be the bearer of bad news. In a world in which we’ve seen over and over how whistleblowers can use public attention to bring an end to wrongdoing on a massive scale–whether it’s the collapse of Enron or the resignation of Nixon–it seems shortsighted to act as though every possible leak will have negative consequences.

On the other hand, there is much to be said for accountability in reporting. As much as we like to believe that facts speak for themselves, who is conveying a particular piece of information is very relevant. This can help determine how much weight we give the information, whether we think it is accurate, whether we think it is a fair portrayal of the situation or is a slanted selection of facts, and what we can draw from the motivation of the speaker. Because the identity of a leaker is usually described generically as “a White House source” or some other euphemistic description, the reader is deprived of the information she might use to judge the credibility and motivation of the source.

Perhaps predictably, the identity of sources who were or wanted to be anonymous is often a bigger story than the information they leaked. For example, in the 1980s, the campaign for Minnesota governor turned ugly when, a week before the election, the conviction of the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor for shoplifting in 1980 was leaked to the press.
Although the conviction had been vacated, it was still a matter of public record, and the information was accurate, if slanted (the shoplifting was for $6 of sewing materials, and it was not at all clear that she had intentionally left the store without paying for the items). One of the newspapers publishing the story, however, thought it was relevant that it was being leaked by the Republican gubernatorial candidate’s campaign. The newspaper broke an agreement it had made to keep the leaker’s identity confidential, and ran stories with the Republican candidate’s name in the headline. The campaign was not happy about this, and the leaker was immediately fired and ended up suing the newspaper. In an indication of how valued anonymous sources are in American society, the Supreme Court found that the leaker could sue the paper, as the paper had promised him anonymity in exchange for his information. His tactics were undoubtedly sleazy, but the Supreme Court at least recognized that there is a place in American politics for that kind of sleaze–that while it isn’t exactly the height of moral rectitude, it can provide the voters with useful information.

The recent leaks and revelations about the leaks that President Bush approved and directed, however, are a particularly pernicious form of this activity. It’s one thing when an administration leaks information as a trial balloon, floating a proposed policy before any official pronouncements are made to see how the public reacts. It’s a relatively benign manipulation of the press when a story is leaked to try to bury it in a slow news cycle on Friday afternoon, or to take some of the sting out of a painful revelation by getting it out early and with a favorable spin.

It’s another when the President of the United States declassifies material for the sole purpose of having it leaked anonymously to the press. In the case of the Minnesota campaign, for example, the "leaking" was information that was a matter of public record–it was just hard to find, so was a matter of pointing reporters to information that they could access themselves. Most leaked stories are like that–journalists will rarely take a source entirely on his own authority, and will try to verify any information they can independent of what he told them.

Selectively declassifying material, therefore, is particularly dangerous because it knowingly cherry-picks information for reporters. In the case of the presidentially-approved leaks, the information was incorrect–Scooter Libby told reporters such as Judith Miller that a “key judgment” of a National Intelligence Estimate report was that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium for the purposes of creating weapons from Africa. The report was classified, but as the President directed (through Vice President Cheney–glad we’re keeping him busy) Libby to leak the information, the portions he was told to leak were legally declassified. The problem is that Iraq supposedly trying to buy uranium from Niger was not a “key judgement” of the report at all. Such NIE reports have almost a bullet-pointed list of the most important information as determined by government intelligence agencies, described as the “key judgements.” The term carries a lot of weight. And in the report, the description of Iraq trying to buy uranium appeared on page 24 of a 90-page document and was labeled “highly dubious.”
The leak, in short, lied. But because it was a tidbit from a classified document that the reporters couldn’t verify on their own, they didn’t–and couldn’t–realize that the President had directed an underling to lie to the American public.

This {provides yet another example of Bush’s true colors. His presidency has been marked by a fanatical commitment to secrecy and an extreme hostility to leaking–exemplified not only by his furious reaction to the revelation that the NSA has been spying on Americans by wiretap for the last several years, but also in his responding to politically innocuous leaks as “an act of treason,” as he did in October 2001 after an article in the Washington Times mentioned military targets in Afghanistan. Now it must be painfully obvious that the hostility is not coming from a legitimate use of secrecy, or any larger principle at all. It’s because it wasn’t a leak that he managed. It wasn’t a leak that lied in order to bolster political support for his own policies.