The Government’s Leaking Manual

An official rule book for forbidden communications.

“The ship of state,” James Reston famously quipped, “is the only vessel that leaks from the top.” This principle was nicely illustrated a couple of months ago when President Bush insisted, during an interview with a group of conservative columnists, that he be identified only as a “senior administration official.” Still, Chatterbox never anticipated that the government would produce and make public official guidelines for ostensibly forbidden leaks.

The document to which Chatterbox refers is “Ground Rules for Interviewing State Department Officials.” It defines the terms “on the record,” “off the record,” “on background,” and “on deep background.” It also defines the phrase “ground rules” itself. These guidelines should be read by anyone foolish enough to believe that journalists subvert authority whenever they withhold the identity of a government source. In truth, they’re usually doing as they’re told.

According to Dana Milbank, a White House correspondent for the Washington Post, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer claims to have instructed top Bush aides that they may speak to reporters only if they agree to be identified. In practice, the rule is precisely the opposite: Bush officials know that if their name is attached to any interesting fact or opinion, they’ll be ostracized and perhaps fired. Fleischer himself, whose job is to talk to the press, follows the latter rule, not the former. “If you’re interested, I’ll be happy to go on background and discuss more data with you,” Milbank reported Fleischer saying at one White House briefing. Fleischer’s brazen offer is recorded on the White House Web site.

Obviously, the White House’s preference would be that administration officials—including Bush himself—never speak to the press at all. But that’s more Platonic ideal than practical reality. The State Department’s ground rules are like condoms passed out by an abstinence-preaching high-school teacher. The contradiction might be ridiculous, but the practical need for a Plan B is too great to ignore. (Incidentally, the Bush administration doesn’t accept this logic when applied to condoms. It has increased “abstinence-only” school grants that threaten loss of federal funds if contraceptives are even discussed. But we digress.)

It’s widely assumed that even Washington bureaucrats who don’t talk to the press are well-versed in press lingo like “deep background” and “off the record.” Don’t the State Department guidelines treat these Beltway sophisticates as though they’d just ridden into town on a turnip truck? But the blunt unacknowledged fact is that when it comes to understanding the differences between all these ground rules, even the press has just ridden into town on a turnip truck. Chatterbox demonstrated  this a few years ago by polling five different Washington Post reporters about the meaning of all these sourcing terms. Some said they didn’t know; those who said they did know gave hilariously divergent answers. To Chatterbox, this demonstrated not that the Posties were ignoramuses but that these terms lacked any agreed-upon fixed meaning at all. The ambiguity obviously benefits reporters, who want to minimize restrictions placed on the information they receive, and harms sources, who often accept the vague terminology to avoid sounding clueless. By imposing meaning on these nonsense terms, the State Department is surely doing its employees a favor. But the exercise is inescapably absurd.