Despite Thomas inquiry, leaks are D.C. way of life

October 23, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Senate's seek-and-punish operation against whoever aired Anita F. Hill's allegation of sexual harassment by Judge Clarence Thomas to the press may uncover the leaker but is unlikely to stop the leaks.

Washington, a colander of a city, will almost certainly continue doing what it does naturally -- passing restricted information to the press.

Fostering fear of discovery has repeatedly failed to forestall the free flow of sensitive information in a town where sharp ears are highly paid to listen to loose lips.

"Leaking is sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always unstoppable," said William Schneider, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "It's part of the game, the way things work in Washington."

President Ronald Reagan got so fed up with leaks that in 1985 he threatened all federal employees with random lie-detector tests. The threat was quickly restricted to suspected spies only after Secretary of State George P. Shultz expressed the general outrage by announcing publicly that he would resign rather than ever take a lie-detector test.

Mr. Reagan may have, as he said at the time, had it up to his "keister" with waking up to find the newspapers full of stories he did not want to see in print, but leaks have continued unabated.

Last night the Senate was trying to decide how to work out an inquiry into the latest flap -- whether to make its own investigation of the Thomas leak or call in the FBI or the General Accounting Office. Regardless of who conducts the inquiry, there will be intense public and political pressure for results.

Leaks come in all shapes and sizes. They can be enlightening, explosive or plain embarrassing.

The 1964-1965 Pentagon Papers revealed the genesis of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and made leaker Daniel Ellsberg a household name. "Deep Throat" was the 1970s source of Watergate skulduggery, and his identity still remains a mystery.

Almost every day, some of the news from Washington will be based on leaks. They serve all sorts of purposes: diplomatic, political, personal, financial.

They come from the highest to the lowest sources, from the president to the campaign manager, from the Cabinet room to the cloakroom. All are grist to the constantly grinding media mill.

What the Republican president doesn't want you to know, the Democratic Congress possibly does. What the White House plays close to its chest, a federal agency might prefer to have laid on the table. What the State Department has in its diplomatic mind, an embassy might want brought to international attention.

"Leaks are used strategically to accomplish some political objective by the White House, the Congress, the agencies. It's certainly a common occurrence in government. It's a tool in the larger political struggle that is being waged," said Thomas Mann, director of government studies at the liberal Brookings Institution.

The leaker can be regaled or reviled, and probably both from different sides.

It is a practice that can be defended as being in the public interest or denounced as being against it.

"The government is so full to the brim of wrongdoing that very often the only way to shed light on this stuff is to give it to a reporter. The more leaking the better, as far as I'm concerned," said Robert Dreyfuss, spokesman for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

Washington is in a constant war of words.

Elie Abel, Stanford professor who wrote a 1988 paper entitled "Leaking: Who does it? Who benefits? At what cost?" said yesterday, "I tried to point out there were pluses and minuses involved. I still believe there are.

"Generally, when a leak is successfully accomplished, the leaker, whoever he or she may be, gets a certain degree of satisfaction from it, and reporters likewise."

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