BROOKE GLADSTONE: The fact is, leaks are the fuel that powers much of journalism -- the best and the worst of it. And there's been a steady stream of them from and about the Bush administration. Bob examined the phenomenon back in 2001, and we thought it was worth another play.
BOB GARFIELD: In the immediate aftermath of September 11th's carnage, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld faced the press to deliver an important message -- not to America -- not to the international community -- not to the media, but to his own Defense Department. It was a warning about leaking classified information, because "a leaker," Rumsfeld declared, "is a threat." [START TAPE]
DONALD RUMSFELD: It's a person who's willing to violate federal criminal statutes, and willing to frustrate our efforts to track down and deal with terrorists, and willing to reveal information that could cause the lives [sic] of men and women in uniform. [END TAPE]
BOB GARFIELD: Two weeks later, USA Today ran a page one story detailing U.S. Special Forces operations already proceeding on the ground in Afghanistan. Two weeks after that, President Bush was so infuriated at leaks from Capitol Hill that he tried to cut off classified briefings to all but a few members of Congress. [START TAPE]
PRESIDENT BUSH: Some members did not accept that responsibility. Somebody didn't. So I took it upon myself to notify the leadership of the Congress that I, I intend to protect our troops. [END TAPE]
BOB GARFIELD: In the end, the president had to back off, because, by law, the administration must keep Congress fully informed on intelligence matters. To many inside the Beltway, though, it was the president who seemed to be out of the loop. In Washington, leaking is not only business as usual -- it's a way of life.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: What the president was saying is: I can't believe that people are getting classified briefings and then leaking information. Come on, Mr. President. It's what happens every day.
BOB GARFIELD: Scott Armstrong is an investigative reporter, author and founder of the National Security Archive, a repository of de-classified information. He says leakers are not only ubiquitous but necessary to journalism and democracy.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: They're correcting things -- sometimes they're verifying things. This is how we get our information. It's an information economy.
BOB GARFIELD: And in the information economy, there is never a recession, because there are too many journalists chasing too many bureaucrats and politicians with too many reasons to blab. One who reputedly did not blab was Leon Feurth, the vice president's national security advisor in the Clinton administration and someone known for being maddeningly leakproof. Feurth says that was a matter of integrity and discipline. Discipline, however, diminishes geometrically with each additional individual entrusted with a given piece of information.
LEON FEURTH: You have a small meeting; everybody in that meeting is extremely responsible, and nobody likes leaks of sensitive information. But they all go back from that meeting to their buildings, and they feel obliged to brief at least one or two other people who are very close to them and important to them operationally. And those people, in turn, brief one or two people who are important to them operationally, and pretty soon you have traversed six degrees of separation, and the information has crossed the barrier and is in the public domain.
BOB GARFIELD: Beyond carelessness, a main category of leaks comes from disaffected insiders -- bureaucrats or political appointees wishing to influence debate or expose blunders within their own agencies. And then there's a third variety --the vanity leak.
LEON FUERTH: And that is that somebody has this information and just can't keep quiet about it and wants to talk about it as a way of basically showing off.
BOB GARFIELD: Reporters need to understand those various motivations in order to evaluate the substance of a given leak. But mainly they're concerned with the steady flow of reliable information. Bill Gertz is on the national security beat at the Washington Times. So successful has he been in reporting classified information that he was said to be the main target of the so-called "Official Secrets" legislation introduced in but so far un-enacted by Congress.
BILL GERTZ: You know, as we say in the news business, you're only as good as your sources, so we focus quite a bit on being able to circumvent the official public affairs bureaucracy.
BOB GARFIELD: If that sounds like a perverse game, that's because it's a perverse game whose perversity is rooted in the fact that official spokesmen mouth the carefully-parsed pronouncements of politicians who are worried about political consequences and, therefore, cannot be relied upon on any subject including the weather. Even Leon Feurth, the Clinton White House's "Mr. Tight Lips" acknowledges the credibility gap.
LEON FEURTH: Dating back to Vietnam and Watergate, the press has had its reasons to be cynical about the motivations of government in wanting to keep information secret.
BOB GARFIELD: Even now, in the enlightened and transparent 21st Century, the Executive Branch tends toward willy-nilly classification of innocuous information that properly belongs in the public domain. And, when confronted by media organizations with leaked information for confirmation or comment, official Washington often reacts with reflexive cries of national security. This often leaves media organizations with difficult choices. When asked to kill or alter a story, they have to decide: Is it really a matter of protecting military or intelligence personnel in the field? Or is the government just trying to shield itself from embarrassment or political fallout? And if the story is held, will it show up the next day in the competition, maybe with a spin favorable to the government? The Washington Times' Bill Gertz.
BILL GERTZ: I can remember in, in one case we had a story about a CIA officer who was having an affair with an Eastern European intelligence officer, and the CIA had asked that we not publish it, and we didn't, and within a week, the story came out in another news publication.
BOB GARFIELD: Some leaks, of course, are well tolerated by administrations because the administration itself, for political or diplomatic reasons, has engineered the leak. Journalist Scott Armstrong.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: If you can control the information, and you leak it out selectively, you can control the press, and you can control the public debate. That's the idea.
BOB GARFIELD: Leon Feurth.
LEON FEURTH: I recognize the press has got a problem, because there's an incident requirement for information and for visual images, but the country has a need. Now, is it the government's problem to solve this, or is it the press's problem to figure out how to deal with it?
BOB GARFIELD: It's a conundrum all right. But one answer might be to look elsewhere in the world, where nobody dare leak and nobody dare publish and nobody knows what obscenity the regime is up to next. The citizens' protection is the responsibility of any government. Protection from the national government by a vigilant press and its confederates is a unique blessing of democracy. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, and Mike Vuolo, and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Anne Kosseff. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.