The Fine Art of the D.C. News Leak

Times Staff Writer

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.”

“It is likely,” Hess wrote in a chapter devoted to the study of leaks, “that the record of the present President will fall to each successive President as government gets bigger and more complex, as more documents are necessary to produce decisions, as more duplicating machines reproduce documents and as more reporters look over the government’s shoulder.”

In the Reagan White House, a former aide said, many people believe the biggest leakers of the first term to have been Michael Deaver when he was deputy chief of staff, Treasury Secretary James Baker, Assistant to the President Richard Darman, Director of Communications David Gergen and Counsel Fred Fielding.

Not many current or former officials will publicly admit they leaked, however. Laitin laughed when he recalled reading a quote from former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski saying that no one on his level leaks. “Brzezinski was one of the biggest leakers in government,” said Laitin, who refused comment on his own reputation as a leaker. “So was (former Secretary of State Henry) Kissinger.”

On plane trips home from the Middle East, where Kissinger had been trying to negotiate a peace settlement, Kissinger would talk to all the reporters on board and ask to be quoted only as a “high Administration official,” polite fiction that gave the Arabs and Israelis a chance to shoot down Kissinger’s ideas without directly insulting either him or the United States.

What’s unique about the current Administration’s leaks is not so much their number as their aura of personal malice.

“In the Reagan Administration,” said a former Reagan White House aide and self-confessed leaker, “the leaks have been more often used as personal leaks aimed at other people. There’s a great deal of infighting. Every President has complained that leaks are getting worse, and they’re probably all right. The fear of leaks was the highest in this Administration.”

Leakophobia, the mere fear of leaks, also can dictate the actions of government officials who know a controversial course of action will inevitably be leaked by someone who disapproves of it, and it will be killed by public disapproval. Valenti said the ill-fated 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by American-supported Cuban exiles “would never have gotten off the ground” in this Administration, because it would have been leaked ahead of time, “throwing the dazzling public light on it and stopping it. So that would have been a good leak.”

Leakophobia can also have the undesirable effects revealed in the Iran-contra hearings of having a very small number of people keep important decisions to themselves in an effort to keep their actions out of the newspapers.

At the hearings, the White House and Congress each accused the other of being the bigger leaker. Washington insiders, however, pretty much agree that the executive branch wins.

“The Congress doesn’t have enough information to leak the way the White House, the Pentagon and the other agencies do,” said Pete Stockton, an investigator on the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, which he said frequently leaks unclassified documents it has gathered in preparation for a hearing, hoping to draw public attention to the issue.

Generally Fair

“Some people claim we do more of it (leaking) than other people and so be it,” Stockton said. “I think we’re generally fair with corporations when we’re taking their internal documents (surrendered for an upcoming hearing) and zipping them (to a reporter). We’re more careful with smaller people than with bigger people.”

Stockton was adamant in pointing out, however, that the committee never has leaked the classified military information it handles.

The subcommittee holds hearings on the cost-effectiveness of many top-secret defense weapons, and a pet peeve of Stockton’s is the particular flair with which he says the Pentagon sometimes leaks information it previously said was classified. He surmises the “secret” stamp is quickly erased when publicity suits the Pentagon purposes.

Stockton also recalled defense officials taking him and a congressman for an admittedly exciting ride aboard a C-5A cargo plane, which Stockton described as “a $60-million plane that could be shot down by a $25 Viet Cong rifle.” After their ride, they were surprised to be greeted by a throng of reporters. The congressman, fresh from his adventure, dutifully gushed about what a great plane it was, even though the purpose of their upcoming hearings was to examine the cost, structure and efficiency of the huge, barnlike plane.

There are as many kinds of leaks as there are motivations for leaking. In his Brookings Institution study of leaks, Hess divided them into the following categories:

--The Ego Leak: “Giving information primarily to satisfy a sense of self-importance.” This type of leak is popular with staff, who have fewer outlets for ego tripping.

One former White House official calls this kind of leak the “Big Mouth Leak” and recalled the incident of Nancy Reagan’s designer dresses: A member of the Administration, apparently motivated by “amusement,” told a wire-service reporter that Mrs. Reagan had been accepting thousands of dollars worth of designer dresses for free. “That’s why we had no control over the timing of the story, and it broke on the same day as the story about catsup being declared a vegetable for schoolchildren’s lunches,” the official recalled.

--The Good Will Leak: “ To accumulate credit with a reporter, which the leaker hopes can be spent at a later date.” This motivation figures at least in part in almost all leaks, Hess said.

In an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, New Republic Editor Michael Kinsley said one reason people leak “is that journalists--shocking as it may seem--give better treatment in what they write to people who have been useful to them.

A Newsweek article in January raised the quite plausible possibility that journalists were slow to uncover the secret contra network precisely because Col. North was such a useful source.

--The Policy Leak: “A straightforward pitch for or against a proposal using some document or insiders’ information as the lure to get more attention than might be otherwise justified.”

A great leak, such as the Pentagon Papers in 1971, is a prime example.

--The Animus Leak: “Used to settle grudges. Information is disclosed to embarrass another person.”

In 1981 columnist Jack Anderson, joining several other reporters in writing that cabinet changes were in the wind, listed then- Secretary of State Alexander Haig at the top of the President’s “disappointment list.” Gergen, then director of White House communications, obtained an advance copy of the article and notified Haig, who angrily told Anderson that the leak was obviously the work of a top White House aide who had been “running a guerrilla campaign” against him for nine months. The guerrilla campaign became a story in itself, reported by several media outlets.

--The Trial Balloon Leak: “Revealing a proposal that is under consideration in order to assess its assets and liabilities.”

When Richard Nixon wished to cue the political community that he was considering Spiro Agnew as a vice presidential running mate in 1968, he leaked his possible plan to the Washington Post. The speculation was received well enough for Nixon to proceed with the plan.

--The Whistle-Blower Leak: “Unlike the others, usually employed by career personnel.”

Former White House aide Barbara Honegger, angry at Reagan’s inaction on women’s issues, leaked her own White House review of discriminatory laws to journalist Sarah McClendon, who then asked Reagan at a televised press conference why he had not acted on the findings of his own report.

(Honegger later stepped over the line and became a full-fledged whistle-blower, different from a whistle-blower leaker in that she resigned and went public with her views.)

Unauthorized leaks are often more fun for reporters than authorized leaks, but they’ll take either one. Sheila Tate, former press secretary to Nancy Reagan, remembered when she performed an authorized leak that suited everyone’s purpose.

With the approach of the annual Fourth of July celebration on the mall in 1983, then-Interior Secretary James Watt announced that Las Vegas crooner Wayne Newton would replace the Beach Boys as the main act--a decision Watt said he made because Newton was better suited for family entertainment. Watt, the darling of the religious right wing, complained about the conduct of the crowd at previous Fourth of July concerts and implied that the Beach Boys had been drawing rowdy crowds to the mall, making it unsafe for “wholesome Americans.”

“Nancy Reagan called me,” Tate recalled, “and said very pointedly, ‘I want you to know I love the Beach Boys.’ She didn’t have to say it twice. I started calling around and saying, ‘Nancy Reagan loves the Beach Boys.’ ” When stories appeared on the furor over Watt’s decision, they included, among other things, the fact that Nancy Reagan herself was said to be a big Beach Boys fan and reportedly was upset about Watt’s actions, a chilling message Watt could not have missed.

In the Reagan Administration, another type of leak often cited is the Message-to-Reagan leak, a subset of the Policy Leak. Because of Reagan’s hands-off management style and the protective nature of his schedulers, some Administration officials early on found they were unable to gain access to him, so they turned to newspaper stories to try to inform him of various important matters. When aides wanted Reagan to raise taxes to cut the deficit, Hess recalled that Sec. of Transportation Drew Lewis leaked information that Reagan’s economic advisers were recommending increases in consumption taxes on alcohol, tobacco and gasoline. The aides basically were trying, through the press, to persuade Reagan to raise taxes.

Got Someone Else to Leak

And then there are different layers of leaks. Powell, Jimmy Carter’s press secretary, remembered that when he wanted to leak something, he often didn’t do it himself because, “the press office tends to be the official voice and the press thinks, ‘I’m just getting sold a bill of goods.’

“If I wanted to leak something I would get somebody else to do it,” he said. “Generally speaking the higher up the leaker is, the more credibility he has; except that, again, it might be better to have a staffer at the National Security Council do it than the national security adviser, because it would seem more exciting to the reporter and less like the party line.”

The question of which media outlet gets what information is also a key part of the art.

The Washington Post, by far the city’s largest newspaper, receives the most leaks involving Washington politics “because if you’re using it as a transmission belt,” said Hess, “you choose a vehicle the person will see. The Post is on everybody’s doorstep every morning.

“The New York Times is more apt to be the source of leaks for international relations because it is more apt to be read in foreign ministries and embassies.”

Usually newspapers other than the Post and the Times have to scramble for exclusive leaks that do not directly involve their readership in particular, often relying on personal relationships with their sources. And while newspapers are usually the vehicle of choice for the best leaks, magazines and television networks with their national audiences are most likely to receive exclusive leaks on items that can be briefly or colorfully stated, or that may arouse public outcry. Often, a story is planted in several outlets to cover all bases.

Some government officials have questioned how accurate stories are that emanate from leaks. Powell said he once made a bet with a reporter that he could get a false story planted in a paper within a week. Powell and the reporter were at a party during the 1980 transition period, after Reagan had won the election but had not yet been sworn in, Powell recalled.

Make Something Up “I told him,” Powell said, “we’re going to walk around the corner here and by the time we get around the corner I will make something up that never happened.”

Powell said he then remarked to a group of people at the party that he “heard” the other day that Carter asked Reagan how he liked the “Remingtons” in the Oval Office, meaning the statues by Frederic Remington of a bronco and a rattlesnake. Reagan, Powell went on, thought Carter was referring to the flintlock rifle over his desk.

“Sure enough,” Powell said, “there it was in the paper in two days.”

Powell recalled that the story had run in the Washington Post, but a computer search failed to turn up that story in that paper during the transition period. Perhaps this was another test, a totally false thing he made up about planting a totally false thing, or, more likely, maybe Powell’s memory sprung a leak somewhere and he had some minor detail wrong.