Sanctimony on Leaks

RAY JENKINS

October 20, 1991|By RAY JENKINS

When I was a young city editor, I kept on the "in" basket where the reporters turned in their stories a placard containing a remark by some British press lord -- I can't even recall his name -- which read: "News is something that someone, somewhere, wants to keep out of the paper. All else is advertising."

Behind that slightly cynical quip lies a certain hard truth, even an article of faith: In a democracy, people use a free press as a forum to debate the great issues of the day, and out of the crucible of that debate, the best public policy emerges.

Because of this truth, I chuckled often during these recent days' acrimony as sanctimonious politicians thundered against the sinister villain who "leaked" Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas to the press. They spoke of the phantom "leaker" much the way tent-revival evangelists speak of Satan.

Well, in that tent-revival spirit, let me make an abject confession: I have leaked many documents. As a member of the White House press office for two years during Jimmy Carter's presidency, there were countless occasions when I would take certain information which needed to be gotten onto the stage for debate, and make a calculated determination as to which reporter I would "leak" the information to. That calculation always boiled down to one question: What would best serve the president's interest?

That said, I now invite every senator who roared against the vile "leaker" to confess that he too has leaked information to the press. If they deny that, then I say, in the words of Sen. Arlen Specter, they are committing "flat-out perjury." It is simply a fact of life that virtually any power center in Washington -- and that includes the much-maligned "interest groups" as well as the elected politicians -- can find some member of the press willing to serve as a conduit -- a handmaiden, if you will -- for publishing that information. Without apology I also admit that as a reporter I have published "leaked" information more times than I can count; in the trade, that's called a "scoop."

Understand, I'm not suggesting that politicians are justified in leaking every shred of information they can get their hands on, nor am I suggesting that the press should publish-and-be-damned under all circumstances. The motive of the person leaking the information is valid. And as for the journalist, credibility of information is valid.

It seems to me that in this painful case, those who opposed the leak of Anita Hill's explosive affidavit were obliquely saying that she did not deserve to be heard. The leak, therefore, was a desperate means to achieve what the leaker believed to be a legitimate end.

As a confessed leaker, I have to say it was a close call. As for the journalist who was favored with this particular leak, the call wasn't remotely close. After all, this wasn't some unknown woman from Kalamazoo who just wandered into the office and claimed that Clarence Thomas had whistled at her in high school. This woman had credibility and had signed a sworn statement alleging serious charges. No journalist worthy of the name would have declined to publish that information.

President Bush has decried this leak, but that's more than a little hypocritical inasmuch as he (or those acting on his behalf) leaks more than anyone else in the sieve of Washington. Now he says he wants to do something about leaks.

Well, I have a suggestion. Let's develop "the ethics of leaking." And let's start here: If there is one thing on which all of us can agree, it should be that no bureaucrat, acting out of purely perverse motives, should ever leak personal, irrelevant information for the sole purpose of destroying another person. And on this score, who was the master leaker of all time? Why, none other than J. Edgar Hoover, the redoubtable head of the FBI for 48 years.

It is now documented that Hoover's FBI sent a tape of Martin Luther King's illegally tapped telephone conversations with other women to Dr. King's wife with an explicit suggestion that the great civil rights leader should consider suicide. That's possibly the vilest thing Hoover ever did, but he did -- or threatened to do -- virtually the same thing to countless other people, without regard to party, ideology or anything else other than sustaining his power through blackmail. A new biography of Hoover speaks "12 filing cabinets full of political cancer" which Hoover kept for his personal use to assassinate people's character -- right up to presidents of the United States.

So to return to the tent-revival metaphor, if President Bush really wants to get right with God on this business of leaking, he can begin by taking J. Edgar Hoover's name off the FBI building in Washington -- he could even preside over the ceremony, like a cornerstone-laying.

Then we could go inside and hold a conference on the ethics of leaking.

Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.

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