TO President Clinton, as it must to every president, has come the time to hit the roof about leaks. He has circulated a memorandum - which was leaked, of course - describing himself as "extremely distressed by several recent deliberate and unauthorized disclosures of highly sensitive national security information."
The Ship of State, it has been said, is the only kind of ship that leaks mainly from the top. The president joins a distinguished array of predecessors who have, at one time or another, blown their tops over their inability to keep information under control.
President Johnson was known to cancel a nomination because word of it leaked before he was ready to announce it. President Nixon, as is well known, employed FBI wiretaps and his own plumbers' crew, hunting down leaks like the secret bombing of Cambodia and the Pentagon Papers. President Reagan said that he was "up to my keister in leaks," that sometimes he thought of the guillotine for leakers, that he wanted to institute governmentwide lie-detector tests - aborted when Secretary of State George Schultz threatened to resign. CIA director William Casey threatened the Washington Post with prosecution for espionage for one leak. President Bush said he sometimes went "semiballistic" about leaks, which he called something like "cheating in school."
There is no doubt that whispered secrets have become more prevalent than they used to be. Since Watergate, when leakers like Deep Throat almost saved our constitutional system, leaking has become more respectable, a kind of whistle-blowing. Leaks have also become a form of interoffice communication - a way of getting attention for someone's pet plan or shooting down somebody else's plan. Leaks sometimes also seem to have an ideological edge. A leak serving a liberal or conservative position often ends up in a like-minded newspaper.
Which brings us to the cause of President Clinton's current complaint. There is no defense subject more sensitive today than missile defenses. The Republican Contract With America calls for nationwide defenses against ballistic missiles, currently banned by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The Clinton administration is trying to negotiate with the Russians a more-modest theater, or regional system, to knock down missiles like Scuds.
In recent months, Bill Gertz of the conservative Washington Times has had an amazing run of stories quoting secret documents and meetings, all embarrassing to the administration. A secret memo from Robert Bell, a national security aide, indicated the talks with the Russians before the May summit were stalled.
A secret memo from Ashton Carter, a Pentagon official, talked of offering the Russians technology as bait for an agreement. Conversations were quoted between John Deutch, then deputy secretary of defense, and his Russian counterpart.
One can understand that a president can find it disconcerting when secret deliberations and bargaining positions are laid bare. So along came a May 2 memo, signed by Mr. Clinton, to cabinet members and heads of security agencies, ordering them to take "necessary measures to protect classified information and to refer leaks to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution."
White House Spokesman Michael McCurry made clear that the memo was prompted by sensitive documents released to Mr. Gertz. "Some mighty amazing pieces of journalism," Mr. McCurry acknowledged. All of this was duly recorded in the Washington Times in a story without a byline. Somebody leaked to me that it was written by Bill Gertz, the byline omitted lest it appear to be boastful.
But if Clinton actually finds and punishes the leaker, or leakers, it will be a first. Other presidents have tried. As far as known, none has succeeded.