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Of tapes and leaks

By Godfrey Sperling Jr. / February 16, 1982



Washington

Now, it turns out, Kennedy, FDR, and Johnson also did their taping of unsuspecting people. Even if history does benefit, it is a grubby business.

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When a president is activating a tape, he really is setting up a somewhat artificial conversation, where he is carefully watching every word he says. Historians will have to bear that in mind. With automatic voice activation, the Nixon tapes have already shown them to be a pretty good mirror of the Nixon presidency.

But the basic problem with the disclosure of these presidential tapes is that it may permanently impair the free flow of information from those who meet with any president. A former government official commented the other day:

''I know that if I were going in to talk to the President today, knowing what I have learned about the tapings, I would be very inhibited by this knowledge. I would be very guarded. I might be very slow to come up with new ideas, lest they , in the light of later revelations on the tapes, make me look bad. And I certainly would be on guard against easy talk and informal conversations that might help in building a better relationship between the President and myself.''

The wisdom in this city is that Ford and Carter didn't tape their conversations with callers. And chief of staff James Baker says emphatically that Reagan isn't taping.

Nonetheless, guests of any president from now on may be just a little less open, a little more careful in what they say and how they say it.

The other major ''information'' story in Washington in recent days concerned the President's effort to plug leaks to the press. Again, the free flow of information, so important in a democracy, was facing possible restriction.

In the end the Reagan people took the strong position of simply trying to prevent leaks of national security secrets. Access to such information will be limited to as few persons as possible - and with a careful record kept of those who have such access. This is policing of the source, not the press. Therefore, the media won't raise questions on this approach if the administration is careful about what it classifies.

In a recent interview with Mr. Baker I asked if he was aware that government officials often use classification of documents to protect themselves more than the nation. He responded:

''Right. But the point I am making is that within the bureaucracy there is the permanent government in Washington and, if a presidential election means anything, it means that a president should have an opportunity to implement his policies. That's what the electorate has decided.

''To the extent that the permanent government subverts that, through the premature disclosure of information, during the decisionmaking process, making it extremely difficult to reach a decision - to the extent leaks are used to subvert a president's policy goals and programs, that presents a president with a problem.

''It's only in a situation like that we even considered the possibility of drawing the line below which no one should talk to reporters. As I say, we rejected the idea.''

Other presidents have been upset by such ''premature'' or ''improper'' leaks. They find them mischievous. Lyndon Johnson on occasion would even change his course of action after a leak of what he was intending to do.

But presidents and their administrations continually leak information to the media in a selective way. Sometimes merely to raise a trial balloon. But usually , by handing out stories to favorite reporters or to sympathetic media, they hope to get bigger play, more favorable treatment.

It is only information they do not like, of course, which presidents don't want to see leaked. But sometimes such leaks are very much in the public interest. Not all are self-serving. Often they help to underscore defects in administration policy - or pose issues that should be debated.

At any rate, it is good that President Reagan has decided not to try to curb leaks other than those relating to national security. Such policing could not be done effectively. More important, it would constitute a restriction on the very necessary free flow of information.