Going After Senate Leakers

October 17, 1991

Sen. Hank Brown, R-Colo., has proposed an investigation to )) find out who leaked Anita Hill's FBI interview and her confidential statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, the majority leader, says he also supports such an investigation. We trust he means it. He may be conflicted. The leaker is almost surely a senior Democratic senator or a member of such a senator's staff.

Some critics of the leaking of the statement and the interview blame the press for reporting what was in the documents. Some have suggested that Senate investigators or FBI agents should force the reporters who broke the story to identify their sources ,, or be charged with contempt. That is unnecessary. It should be easy enough to find the leaker in this particular situation, given the small number of persons with access to the documents.

Coercing journalists with legal process is also unwise. It is the hallmark of closed societies, for one thing. For another, a curious and unintimidated press is a requirement for effective government. Washington officials and journalists depend on leaks to keep the public and officialdom informed of what is happening. Bureaucrats at all levels leak. So do legislative staffers, members of Congress and even presidents. Often it is how they communicate with each other.

If the press does not report what it learns from leaks, the public might never know of some important bureaucratic and political bungling and malfeasance. Leaks from idealistic whistle-blowers and others are a part of the Washington scene.

But there are leaks -- and leaks. While most are in the public interest and not technically illegal, some are not in the public interest and are illegal. When the latter occur, some official investigation is needed -- of the sources, not of the press -- to find and appropriately punish the culpable. This case falls into that category. If FBI reports, with all their raw, damaging and often incorrect material, can be leaked with impunity, a lot of people will not talk to the FBI when background checks are being made. Many people will refuse appointments to important positions that require background checks rather than risk having intimate details and/or false charges publicized.

That is not in anybody's best interest. The FBI if not the Senate itself surely can find the guilty person or persons in this case without peril to a free press and without trampling on the rights of any individual. And it should.

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