Richard Reeves

The Truth About Leaks

WASHINGTON -- Far be it from me to defend Karl Rove, but give the guy a break. He was only doing his job, which is character assassination. He's not the first, and he won't be the last.

There is little new about Leakgate, or whatever name is best used for the current games being played here. In the 1790s, Thomas Jefferson was considered quite the leaker by his boss, President Washington. These days, a lot of people would like to hurt Rove because he has made a career of hurting others. What gives the ordinary the patina of something original is the fact that a lunatic prosecutor has put a New York Times reporter in jail for no particular reason.

And there is the fact that we have a president who may be so far removed from the reality of Washington life and his own White House that he actually meant it when he said that he would punish whoever was leaking "national security" information. Who did he think does that, the tooth fairy? Try the White House, the State Department, the Defense Department, the FBI and the CIA! That's where the best information is, and that's where the leaks come from.

Leaks are the white corpuscles of Washington. They fight infection, the many kinds that breed and grow in this steamy built-over swamp. Leaks are essential to the health of the body politic, fighting the arrogance of power.

The new fashion is for reporters to be told or to tell each other that they must take into account and reveal the motivation of anonymous leakers. Well, here are the top 10 motivations, the reasons the high and the mighty, and the low and the outraged, whisper nasty things to reporters -- and will continue to do so as long as this is a free country:

(1) Trial balloons. Names and ideas being considered for elevation are leaked to gauge possible reaction by the powerful and the people.

(2) To kill off adversaries by raising unanswerable questions about them. When did you stop abusing your children, you commie fundamentalist?

(3) Getting even. No explanation needed.

(4) Getting to the president or someone else in high power. Few people can get to a president with their warnings or their ideas, but if something gets in the newspapers, or even on the Web, he will, sooner or later, hear about it.

(5) Senior and mid-level officials often leak the truth in anger, off-the-record or on-background, because they have been forced by higher-ups to lie or deny that truth in public.

(6) Officials at higher levels leak by giving their lessers a styled version of something that happened in the Oval Office or some other rarefied venue to make their point without much chance of being held responsible.

(7) To save themselves, their job or their program. For reporters this is the tough one, because people lie to preserve what they hold dear.

(8) To deflect the spotlight and put someone else on the spot. Alternately, to attract the spotlight.

(9) To impress reporters, who are not only powerful in the capital city, but usually have longer tenure than elected and appointed officials. And we have been known to pay back favors.

(10) Finally, reporters leak to other reporters to get their bosses' attention. Stories appear in The New York Times, for instance, because many editors and producers don't consider news to be news until they see it in the Times.

That's the way it works. It may be a lousy system, but as someone once said, all the others are worse. No government is safe from leaks; no people are safe without them.

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