Overreaction on leaks

IT seems to happen every few years: The administration in Washington decides that the press, with its nosiness and its willingness to soak up the information that dribbles out through leaks, is sabotaging the work of government, and possibly the national security. Hearteningly, William J. Casey, director of central intelligence, who has been leading the charge this time, has backed down from his earlier threats of criminal prosecutions against news organizations that reveal information the government deems sensitive.

Leaks are part of the way the game is played in Washington. Some leaks have what we might call unofficial official sanction -- they're press releases under another name. Presidential preconceptions notwithstanding, leakers tend not to be disgruntled underlings, but rather political appointees trying to get a message out. Henry Kissinger, for instance, was a superstar among leakers.

If leakers and leakees (journalists) expose the administration's internal debates and give the public opportunity to react to various projects and programs being hatched in the corridors of power, well, isn't that what democracy and freedom of the press are all about?

A curious inconsistency marks this conservative administration. President Reagan came to power preaching the evils of government. But now that he is in power, he and his team have argued strenuously for the presumed right of the government to do business out of the public eye. Those who object to such behavior are considered somehow disloyal. The public seems to accept this inconsistency.

Two leakers have been fired lately -- one from the State Department and one from the Pentagon. An executive is within his or her rights to decide that leaking to the press is unacceptable behavior on the part of a subordinate, and grounds for termination.

But if the administration is really successful in tightening up on leaks from the bottom -- remember the ruckus George Shultz raised over polygraph tests a few months ago? -- the truth of the adage ``The ship of state leaks from the top'' may have to be faced.

Leaks differ from espionage, which the government certainly needs to guard against. And national-security leaks are somewhat different from leaks about bureaucratic infighting. But not that different.

The press is by and large quite responsible, and the superficial cynicism of many reporters masks a profound patriotism. If the federal government expects to build -- or maintain -- a public consensus on national security, it must be willing to let the press report fully on national-security issues, and not expect public curiosity to be satisfied with ``Uncle [Sam] knows best.''

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