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The Fine Art of the D.C. News Leak

August 09, 1987|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — They do it over cocktails, on airborne C-5A military cargo planes and even within earshot of the Oval Office.

Mostly, though, they do it on the phone.

The leaking of information, as Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter made a point of saying at the Iran- contra hearings, "has become an art form in this city."

The practice took its own peculiar twist at the hearings, when Lt. Col. Oliver L. North accused Congress of leaking information before the Libya bombing raid and consequently causing the deaths of American airmen. Vigorously disabused of that notion by Senate committee chairman Daniel K. Inouye, North was subsequently named by Newsweek as the leaker of information on the Achille Lauro hijacking.

Although North was no doubt embarrassed by the revelation that he practiced what he preached against, not many insiders were surprised that he had.

"The percentage of virgins," said Jody Powell, former press secretary to President Jimmy Carter, "is relatively small."

"There was a time in this town when sex was a dirty word, but everybody was doing it. Now leaking is a dirty word, but everybody's doing it," said Joseph Laitin, who served as Treasury Department spokesman for the last six administrations and is now ombudsman to the Washington Post.

Leaked to NBC

Most recently it was Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) who revealed that he had leaked to NBC an unclassified report on the Iran-contra affair that became the subject of many news reports. Leahy then resigned from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, saying he was angry at himself for not being more careful in showing the document to a reporter.

In its various arty forms, leaking is simply the release of information or documents in some manner other than a widely circulated, official government announcement. A leak can come subtly, in a casual aside at a dinner party. It can come brazenly in a telephone call. Officials who have just met with the President in the Oval Office can pull a waiting reporter aside right on the White House grounds. Most often, leaks are coaxed out of government figures.

Leak subject matter runs the gamut from the deadly serious (classified national-security information) to the dreadfully silly (Nancy Reagan's free designer dresses), from the very big (former White House budget director David Stockman's months-long mega-leak to the Atlantic Monthly about the folly of trickle-down economics), to the very small (a list of Hollywood celebrities expected at a state dinner).

But as widespread as the art is, there are very few people who do it artfully, according to Laitin, himself an ex-leaker of repute. "They're clumsy, like Leahy," said Laitin. "The important thing about the art of leaking is to do it in a way where you don't leave any greasy fingerprints."

Willing partners are no problem. Syndicated Washington columnist Robert Novak denies that he absorbed so many leaks that he became Stockman's "bulletin board," as the ex-budget director called him. But he admits he has received many leaks, in many ways.

An Obscure Place

"I used to get stuff years ago on the FBI that (Director J. Edgar) Hoover didn't know I was getting. It used to be put in a stall in the men's room at the Washington Hotel," Novak said. "He (the source) didn't want to be seen with me, and he thought that was really an obscure place."

During the Carter Administration, Novak added, a White House aide smuggled top secret national-security documents to him by giving them to a congressional staffer "who would come by in front of my office in a car and I would go out and pick it up.

"To this day I don't know who the leaker was," Novak said.

The current Administration "has been the leakiest that most journalists can remember in 30 years," said Howard Simons, curator of Harvard's Nieman Foundation and the managing editor of the Washington Post during Watergate.

Others disagreed with that notion, saying all administrations leaked to the distraction of the various Presidents. President Lyndon B. Johnson "used to go ballistics" about leaks, according to Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, who served as special assistant to Johnson in the White House.

Call for Lie Detector

Reagan has hardly accepted leaks calmly, occasionally calling for lie detector tests of government employees and scolding reporters.

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow in the governmental studies program of the Brookings Institution here, also believes that Reagan's Administration is the leakiest, but thinks it will be surpassed by the next one.

According to some insiders, Hess wrote in "The Government/Press Connection," the Reagan Administration's leakiness "resulted from the number of undisciplined ideologues that Reagan brought to Washington, the theory being that leaks rise in direct proportion to the ideological content of an administration."

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