Secret Weapon

High-level leaking, for reasons good and bad, has long been part of U.S. political reality.

October 14, 2003|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

He didn't use a telephone. He didn't wear a trench coat. He didn't meet anyone in a parking garage, demand anonymity or insist - though some secret signals were involved - upon a code name.

All it took for this "leak" was a good horse and a healthy set of vocal cords:

"The British are coming! The British are coming!"

The unauthorized release of classified government information - and to British eyes, at least, Paul Revere's midnight ride was exactly that - has been an American phenomenon since colonial times.

Our founding fathers leaked.

And like a boat built of Swiss cheese, tossed on the high seas, the ship of state has been leaking ever since.

Nowhere is a government secret more likely to ooze out than America (one of few countries without an "official secrets" law), and nowhere in America leaks like Washington, where for a multitude of reasons (not always honorable) information deemed secret (not always rightly) is surreptitiously fed to the public, via the news media, by bureaucrats, generals, elected officials, Cabinet members, even presidents.

Sometimes, as with the Pentagon Papers, leaks can expose questionable policies, changing the course of history. Sometimes, as with President Clinton's libidinous exploits, they can be of arguable importance. Sometimes, as with the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA agent, they serve no good purpose at all.

But nearly always they get the ruling powers riled up, spouting rhetoric and calling for expensive, time-consuming investigations that - except for a couple of low-level bureaucrats who have done prison time - usually lead nowhere.

Every year, the Justice Department gets about 50 requests to probe leaks. About half of those get investigated, but the investigations almost always end without prosecution, or even a suspect being named.

"There's a whole history of stupid escapades of trying to find out who leaked," said Martin Linsky, a lecturer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government who has seen leaks from all sides - as a journalist, a state legislator and chief secretary to former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld. "It's a waste of time, and almost always guarantees the story is going to just get bigger."

As leaks go, the latest - two "senior administration officials" told Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak that Wilson works for the CIA - is viewed as particularly mean-spirited, one that, even a convicted Watergate conspirator says, "out-Nixons" Nixon.

"What has surfaced is repulsive," John Dean, special counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, wrote in a recent commentary for the Web site FindLaw. "If I thought I had seen dirty political tricks as nasty and vile as they could get at the Nixon White House, I was wrong. ... Nixon never set up a hit on one of his enemies' wives."

Wilson is the wife of former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who, based on his CIA-funded fact-finding trip to Niger last year, criticized as "bogus" the Bush administration claim that Niger provided uranium to Saddam Hussein.

While an investigation is under way, it is considered unlikely that it will lead to charges, either under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which has produced only one conviction since it became law in 1982, or the Espionage Act of 1917, more commonly used to prosecute leakers.

A grudge can be one reason for a leak. There are countless others. A leaker may want to correct an injustice, bring down a political opponent, curry favor with a journalist or send up a trial balloon. A leak can be either intended or inadvertent - the result of too many cocktails. It can come from the bottom or - as is often the case on The West Wing and in real life - the top.

Every administration since Woodrow Wilson's has lambasted leakers. And every president since Wilson has made discreet but routine use of the practice themselves - personally, or through their minions, giving the press information on the sly when circumstances merited some truth, or untruth, become known.

But the sometimes noble, sometimes ignoble, history of leaks goes back much further.

George Washington grew infuriated with Alexander Hamilton for leaking information to the British during the Jay Treaty negotiations in the summer and fall of 1794. James Madison was exasperated when his secretary of state leaked documents to his enemies in the Federalist Party.

During James K. Polk's administration, in 1848, John Nugent, a journalist for the New York Herald, published, based on a leak, the secret treaty ending the war with Mexico. When he refused to disclose his sources to Senate investigators, he was arrested and held for a month in a Capitol committee room, continuing to write his column at double his normal salary and going home at night with the sergeant at arms, who fed and housed him.

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