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In Politics, Leaking Stories Is a Fine Art

Washington insiders have long honed the skill, learning exactly when, or to whom, to disclose secrets in order to advance their agenda.

April 09, 2006|Richard T. Cooper and Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Months after U.S. troops stormed into Iraq, the Pentagon drafted a top-secret document using classified intelligence to spell out Baghdad's involvement with Al Qaeda. It supported one of President Bush's strongest arguments for the war.

Within days, big chunks of the classified report appeared verbatim in a conservative magazine, the Weekly Standard, complete with the paragraph numbers that are a telltale feature of Defense Department documents.

Headlined "Case Closed: The U.S. Government's Secret Memo Detailing Cooperation Between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden," the article said the intelligence left no doubt that Iraqi President Hussein had been in league with Al Qaeda.

It was a classic leak -- the kind of national security breach that the Bush administration had often reacted to with indignation.

But instead of complaining, officials held up the article as proof of the Hussein-Bin Laden nexus. Vice President Dick Cheney told the Rocky Mountain News: "One place you ought to go look is an article

Even at the time, most members of the intelligence community believed the relationship between Hussein and Bin Laden was relatively unimportant and considered the leaked memo a distortion of evidence.

The episode unfolded in late 2003 and early 2004 at a time when critics were beginning to question Bush's case for going to war. And it reflected one of the most basic facts of life in Washington: Though high-level officials often portray leaks as renegade acts that betray the public trust, leaks are just as likely to be fully approved, calculated actions by loyal members of an administration -- moves designed to advance an agenda, thwart enemies and manipulate public opinion.

Such leaks are a primary reason so much Washington reporting is based on anonymous sources -- and why critics often question the motives of the unnamed person.

Sometimes, planning for important leaks starts in the White House.

It was disclosed Thursday that former Cheney aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby had testified that the president approved a leak in July 2003 of selected material from a different classified report. The information was meant to bolster another administration argument for the Iraq war. The White House has not denied leaking the material.

Critics say such leaks helped Bush in the buildup to the war.

"Leaking is a matter of White House policy to implement an agenda," said Lanny J. Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton and a government insider. "That has been the case since the founding of the republic."

Literally. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, whose face adorns the $10 bill, played a crucial role in winning popular support for the Constitution. But his dream of becoming president was dashed when someone told a scandal-mongering journalist about an affair Hamilton had had with a married woman.

The leak, Hamilton believed, came from the camp of rival James Madison, who went on to become the fourth president of the United States.


Today, leaking has become such a basic part of the way Washington works that officials hold meetings to decide when, where and how to leak. They cultivate reporters who can be counted on to make good use of leaks. They draft memos spelling out official leak policies so that lower-level officials will know how to leak correctly.

The whole business has taken on the wink-and-a-nod quality of the scene in the movie "Casablanca" when the prefect of police, played by Claude Rains, declares that he's "shocked" to discover gambling in the cafe owned by Humphrey Bogart's character -- and hardly bats an eye when a waiter rushes up to deliver his own winnings.

Some Washington insiders have trouble imagining how the capital would work without leaks. "It's rather democratic actually," said one House GOP staffer. "It's war by other means. It has always been thus. Can it really be any other way?"

John Martin, former internal security chief of the Justice Department, once said that if leaks were prosecuted aggressively, the capital would have to be relocated to the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa. "The biggest leakers are White House aides, Cabinet secretaries, generals and admirals and members of Congress," he said.

Over time, the number of different kinds of leaks and the purposes they are crafted to serve have multiplied. There are so-called trial-balloon leaks to test reaction to an idea before it is officially put forward. There are leaks designed to shoot down trial balloons.

Some leaks are designed to encourage news coverage, others to kill or limit it.

Shrewdly placed leaks can elicit prominent coverage for routine news, the news manager's equivalent of turning chicken feet into chicken salad.

In mid-March, for example, the White House leaked copies of a new National Security Strategy report to four newspapers: the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

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