The Evolution of the Political Leak

Close relationships between journalists and lawmakers raise a serious question: Who is using whom?

I HAVE become uncomfortably aware that Americans don't love journalists so much any more and are no longer willing to forgive us our press passes. It's a long way from Hildy Johnson of The Front Page to the million-dollar blow-dried anchor person on television. Indeed, our whole profession seems sometimes to have been crowded into a small corner of a vast entertainment stage - competing with entertainment and sometimes borrowing the tools and values of entertainment in a relentless quest for ratings.

Are we courageous scourges of the ``establishment,'' or have we grown into an establishment ourselves - more invasive, more overweening, more insensitive, and more self-serving than the government and the political process we profess to monitor?

And who uses whom? How does it really work between the news media and politicians? Is the public served by the process? The traditional relationship is symbiotic, though we are reluctant to dwell on how often our successes are really someone else's successes.

As CBS correspondent in Moscow in 1957, I received considerable credit for arranging the first-ever television interview with a Soviet leader - Nikita Khrushchev - from the Kremlin. Now the secret of that scoop can be told. A Soviet official called me, referred to the latest of our monthly letters proposing an interview with Premier Nikolai Bulganin. The official asked if we were still interested in an interview with ... Nikita Khrushchev, head of the Communist Party. ``Sure,'' I said, not mentioning that it was Bulganin we had asked for. Seen in retrospect, Khrushchev wanted to renew his relations with the West that had been torpedoed by the 1956 Soviet blood bath in Hungary. He wanted American television to help him open a campaign that led, two years later, to a tour of America and a parley at Camp David. Our scoop; his coup.

Closer to home, in 1976 I obtained the draft of the final report of the House Intelligence Committee recounting the failures and misdeeds of the CIA. The Ford administration eventually succeeded in having the report suppressed by the House. I don't talk about sources, then or now. But I'm aware that I served somebody's purpose in a grim game of saving that report from the memory hole. Not to say that I didn't work hard to get it. But that's what you call a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Now we're onto that oldest established feature of Who Uses Whom called leaks, which are about as old as secrets. Leak is an interesting verb, originally intransitive. Something leaked, that is, seeped, escaped, oozed out. But the press and government have made it transitive. Something is leaked. Somebody leaks. There are ``leakers'' and there are ``leaking sessions.'' Michael Kelly in the New York Times says that former Secretary of State Jim Baker spent 35 hours a week leaking at a high level, while David Gergen handled the lower level.

One must divide leaks into two categories - authorized and unauthorized. President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger loved the one, hated the other. The Watergate White House files are full of references to ``this should be leaked to this columnist, that should be leaked to that magazine.'' The Howard Hunt forgery of a cable linking President Kennedy to the assassination of Ngo Dien Diem was planned to be leaked to Life magazine. The information about a financial deal that drove Justice Abe Fortas from the Supreme Court was leaked to Life magazine.

But unplanned leaks - unplanned by them - drove Nixon and Kissinger up the wall and into wiretaps of officials and journalists and into creating a leak-plugging unit called the Plumbers, which dealt, among other things, with the biggest unplanned leak of all, the Pentagon Papers.

There is also something that might be called the secondary leak. In January 1975, President Ford let slip, at a White House luncheon with the New York Times publisher, editors, and columnists, that the CIA had been involved in assassination conspiracies. He tried to retract by saying, ``off the record.'' President Arthur O. Sulzberger, to the distress of some of his staff, ordered that the explosive remark not be pursued. It came to my ears, resulting in an exclusive on the CBS Evening News that precipitated a Senate investigation and exposure of the CIA efforts, in league with the Mafia, to eliminate Fidel Castro. Without discussing my source, I can say that no one in authority in the US government or the New York Times wanted that leak, and neither benefited from it. The public did benefit mightily. It exposed one of the darkest chapters in CIA history - a secret the agency had scandalously kept from the Warren Commission.

As to the identity of the most talked-about, speculated-about leak of modern times, Deep Throat, I believe that Jim Mann, then a colleague of Bob Woodward at the Washington Post who now works for the Los Angeles Times, had it right in a very detailed, very convincing article in the Atlantic Monthly. ``Deep Throat'' was one or more of three top-level FBI officials, furious because Nixon had picked outsider L. Patrick Gray to succeed J. Edgar Hoover, furious also that Gray and the White House were obstructing their investigation of Watergate, which would make the bureau look bad.

So was the Watergate conspiracy punctured by G-men, jealous of their turf, jealous of the bureau's reputation? So Woodward and Bernstein got the Pulitzer prize, and the FBI got Nixon. Who used whom?

Recently I was the beneficiary of a leak from old ``enemies list'' Nixon himself. He had written a memorandum about how President Bush was missing the boat on aid to Russia and circulated it to a list of friends that did not include me. My friend, Bill Safire, showed it to me but stipulated that I couldn't use it without Nixon's permission. The memo lacked any secret or confidential label or any of the security cautions that came so naturally to Nixon. I called Nixon's office in New Jersey and asked his assistant to ask him whether I could quote from it. She said it would not be necessary to consult him - she knew it would be all right. Sounded as though she had been waiting for my call. So I got a story, and Nixon, as he undoubtedly planned, put a shot across President Bush's bow in a way that enabled him to say it wasn't a press release, just a private memorandum that leaked. Leaked? Was leaked?

In the current phase of our public life, the leak has become so commonplace as to be devalued. Television correspondents can routinely report what the president is going to say in a speech tomorrow. Names of prospective nominees are floated and often withdrawn without regard to their reputations. There is hardly an official report, starting with the budget, that you won't find summarized before it is released. Whatever happened to the embargo - that mutually convenient arrangement between press and government?

The leak has now been absorbed into the all-embracing spin. Secret-keeping has fallen to imagemaking. Massaging the media has come almost to overshadow policymaking and decisionmaking. First we have the feeding of the press, then the feedback. If that is negative, you see changes called ``fine-tuning.'' The Clinton health program, in nine months of gestation and trial balloons, went through so much fine-tuning as to be worthy of an orchestra. The White House image-making corps grows steadily larger. David Gergen, the communicator, is now also the policy adviser. The danger is that communicating will become not only a way of explaining policy, but will dictate and ultimately become the policy. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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