Standing up for news leaks

Chastened by the violent protests in the Islamic world that followed its report on desecration of the Koran by American soldiers, Newsweek has spread its regrets over several pages of the magazine and issued rigorous new rules for using material from unidentified sources. USA Today has taken the occasion to announce it's cut the use of information from unnamed sources by 75 percent.

We seem to be in one of those recurrent periods of leak-bashing. Since nobody in my profession seems to be willing to stand up for "news from nowhere," I will venture to do so. Do I have a personal interest? You bet I do!

In my prepundit years I relied heavily on "background" or "deep background" information. My most dramatic encounter with a leak occurred in 1976 when someone provided me with the complete text of a House committee report on intelligence failures and misconduct that the House had just voted to suppress. (I was called before the House Ethics Committee and threatened with being cited for contempt if I did not reveal my source. But that's another story.)

Leaks are sometimes a form of whistle-blowing meant to expose official misconduct. The father (mother?) of all leaks, of course, was Deep Throat, Bob Woodward's source who helped to start the Watergate ball rolling toward President Nixon's resignation. And the Iran-Contra scandal that put a blotch on the Reagan presidency started with a leak reported by a Lebanese paper with sources in Tehran. It's no surprise that President Reagan once said he was "up to my keister in leaks." And the third recent president to suffer because of a leak was Bill Clinton. Newsweek had obtained a leak suggesting that the president was carrying on with a White House intern. While the magazine was still checking the story out, Internet gossip monger Matt Drudge got wind of it (a secondary leak?) and posted the story on his website - starting the march to Clinton's impeachment.

More recently, the exposure of the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal started from information and pictures obtained by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and CBS. Tim Golden of The New York Times obtained the 2,000-page confidential file of an Army investigation of the brutal torture and killing of two Afghan detainees. And from an anonymous military officer who spoke to The Times, we learned what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has not told us - that the Pentagon believes US military involvement in Iraq could last for many years.

On many vital matters we would be left in the dark were it not for leaks. It's been said that the ship of state is the only kind of ship that leaks mainly from the top.

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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