Karl Rove, deputy chief of staff to former President George W. Bush, spoke last week at Loyola Marymount University as part of a campuswide 1st Amendment Week. In his remarks, he reiterated his belief that government leaks can cause serious harm, and that newspapers should respect government secrecy.
What follows was excerpted from his speech.
Secrecy and confidentiality are necessary for every government, especially when you’re at war.
Most citizens don’t want our plans to stop an enemy attack splashed on the front pages of the newspaper. So when the New York Times took it upon itself to describe an intelligence program that used electronic means of communication and information-gathering ... by which we listen in to the electronic communications of our enemy abroad -- their satellite phones, their Internet messages, anything of an electronic nature. When the New York Times let it be known that we were doing this, it put America and our allies at risk.
Because by sharing this vital secret, we telegraphed to the enemy: Don’t you be sending e-mails, because virtually every e-mail in the world passes through a U.S. network, and we’ll grab it.
Don’t you be using a satellite telephone to communicate about your plans to attack Americans or our friends or allies, because we may be listening in.
Don’t be using a cellphone, because we might have found some guy on a battlefield somewhere and gone through his pockets. They call it pocket litter. When we kill somebody on the battlefield, every piece of paper, every document, every item on their body is collected and analyzed, and that information goes into a gigantic database. ... So don’t be using that cellphone to communicate your plans because we might be listening in on it.
I love how the last eight years, this White House, the Bush White House, was criticized for being tight-lipped. We didn’t leak. I hope Barack Obama has a White House that doesn’t leak, and let me tell you why.
The Oval Office is an incredibly powerful place. It is the epitome of American democracy. You cannot imagine how powerful that office is on the psyche of people.
My office was 20 steps from the Oval Office. I’d have members of Congress come into my office and say, “By God, the president’s screwing this up.” They’d be a little bit more colorful than that.
They’d say, “I’m gonna go in there today for my meeting, and by God, I’m gonna tell him what’s going wrong and what he needs to do. And by God, he needs to hear it from me ‘cause he’s not hearin’ it from anybody else. I’m gonna go in there and tell him what for.”
I’d escort them into the Oval Office, and they’d say, “Mr. President, you’re lookin’ damn pretty today.”
Because [the Oval Office] is so powerful, and as a result so confining and limiting, you want people to have the ability to walk in and say, “Here’s what I believe.” And in order to get that, you’ve got to have people not worried about, “You know what? If I say something somebody’s gonna leak it to the Washington Post and make me look like an idiot tomorrow.” You don’t want people to say, “You know what, if I say that, how’s it going to look on the front page of the New York Times?”
You want people to have respect for each other and have the ability to say, “I disagree,” and you want to have the ability for the president to get that kind of advice and not worry about having anything leaked to the newspapers. You have people leaking left and right, and you’ve got people pulling their punches. And the last place that anybody needs to pull a punch is in the Oval Office.
The freedom of the press should not be allowed and should not be required [to give] such transparency to the policy process that that policy process is stifled in its operation.
One in an occasional series of excerpts from public lectures in Southern California.