BOB GARFIELD: In the immediate aftermath of September 11th 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Fuerth [sp?], the vice president's national security advisor in the Clinton administration and someone known for being maddeningly leakproof. Firth says that was a matter of integrity and discipline. Discipline, however, diminishes geometrically with each additional individual entrusted with a given piece of information.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: 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.
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: 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 [sp?] is on the national security beat at the Washington Times. So successful has he been in reporting classified information that he is said to be the main target of so-called "Official Secrets" legislation now percolating in 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 spokesman 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 Fuerth, the Clinton White House's "Mr. Tight Lips" acknowledges the credibility gap.
Leon Fuerth: Dating back to Vietnam and Watergate, the press has had its reasons to be cynical about the motivations of government and 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:Divining what is strategic and what is actually a breach is all part of the game. Two weeks ago in the Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward had an exquisitely detailed story about attempts during the Clinton administration to capture Osama bin Laden, attempts, according to the Woodward account that were squelched by Saudi Arabia's refusal to participate. For "leakologists" this was an irresistible brain teaser. Was the source old Clintonites, Democrats on the Hill, the Bush White House? Who? Armstrong, who was the co-author with Woodward on the best seller The Brethren, has his own suspicions. They begin with Saudi diplomat Prince Bandar [sp?].
SCOTT ARMSTRONG: Anyone who's read Woodward's books that deal with the Persian Gulf War would have noted that there are a lot of quote marks around things that Prince Bandar has said, and when somebody tells me that the U.S. wanted to do something with Saudi Arabia and I know that the principal line of communication throughout the entire period was through Prince Bandar to the Saudi government and back through Prince Bandar to the United States government, I put those two things together and come up with a, the most likely source of this information is a Saudi.
BOB GARFIELD:Leon Fuerth, for his part, doesn't much care who the source was. Nowadays he's a visiting professor of international relations at George Washington University, but when he read the piece, his instinct was still to fear for the flock.
Leon Fuerth: Let's say that the information that he reported is correct for the sake of talk, for the sake of discussion. Let's just say that it, it's correct. Then that would be damaging, because it would talk about-- by implication networks that we used, relationships that we had developed, kinds of influence that we could exercise, and our, our mode of planning and attack. And 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 government by a vigilant press and its confederates is a unique blessing of democracy.