The Big Idea

Go Ahead, Leak a Little

Locked lips sink even more ships.

All of a sudden, the Bush White House is leaking like, well, every other White House. Aides are gabbing to reporters and passing on classified documents for the same reasons they always have —to build themselves up, to show they’re not to blame for mistakes, to advance their side in internal debates, or to get the president’s attention. Though the leaks are anonymous, it’s apparent that various officials are trying to extricate themselves from the Bush train wreck, elude the judgment of history, and advance their post-Bush careers.

All this is to be expected. The amazing thing about the Bush administration is not that it’s leaking so heartily now, but that until recently, it hardly leaked at all. From the beginning of Bush’s presidential campaign in 1999 through last month’s midterm election, his inner circle has been caulked and sealed like a schooner—or a tomb. To be sure, this was only possible with the advantage of unified government. While Democrats were in the minority, Henry Waxman wasn’t able to extract much leak-worthy information. Now he and his colleagues will be spilling over with it. But even with an allied Congress during its first two years, the Clinton administration held on to its internal deliberations in much the way a colander holds water. By keeping his administration buttoned for as long as he did, Bush did something unprecedented and undeniably impressive.  

For the press, an administration without leaks has been like a very long Christmas party without alcohol. Covering a White House where people don’t gab leaves little operational space between stenography and commentary. After six dry years, White House reporters feel giddy, vindicated, and perhaps a bit vindictive. Bush, meanwhile, is visibly seething as his zero-tolerance policy falls to ruin. But was he wrong to keep the lid on tightly while he could? 

Politics without leaks has some obvious advantages. In any White House, controlling your agenda and message becomes a central preoccupation. With unapproved leaks, officials spend their days responding to what turns up in the press, instead of talking about whatever they want to be talking about. The memo disgorged last week in which National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley expressed his doubts about the fitness of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a case in point. This accidental seepage of reality into Bush’s Iraq fantasy had officials tying themselves in knots for days afterward, claiming that the document both did and didn’t mean what it said. Beyond the distraction problem, leaders lose credibility when aides express qualms about their policies, as happened in 1981, when David Stockman confessed his doubts about Ronald Reagan’s economic policy to William Greider at the Atlantic. This happened again in 1992, when Richard Darman committed honesty about George H.W. Bush in an interview with Bob Woodward at the WashingtonPost

Leaking also undermines orderly process and internal operations. In 1994, Bill Clinton’s welfare reform task force eventually had to stop meeting entirely because the liberal members undermined any proposal they disliked by slipping it to Jason DeParle at the New York Times. This problem is no different in politics than it is in business or academia. If a decision-maker can’t trust that internal deliberations will remain confidential, he can’t rely on the advice he gets or on the advisers who give it to him. Blabbing outside the tent also erodes necessary bonds of trust among team players. In leaky environments, Machiavellian operators like Henry Kissinger and James Baker flourish, while the honorable schoolboys are constantly watching their backs.

That said, a more open and fluid White House confers some distinct advantages. An executive who is too paranoid about disclosure can’t have robust internal deliberations, because more people knowing means more people who might tell the press. A high standard of discipline and loyalty can also become a climate of fear and conformity, in which hunting down traitors becomes a self-destructive diversion. The mafia can’t function without omertà—but without omertà, your organization doesn’t turn into a mafia.

Absent any seepage, executives lose needed sources of information. An American president lives in a bubble that grows more hermetic over time. Leaks are a way for him to hear what his gatekeepers deny him, including the truth. If the news is going to be bad, the decider is better off getting it sooner. Leaks ensured that Clinton didn’t follow through on several doomed Cabinet nominations. Had the name of Harriet Miers trickled out a few days early, the president might have been spared a major embarrassment. Had Colin Powell’s doubts about WMD intelligence surfaced on the front page the day of his United Nations speech, smoke would have poured out of Bush’s ears, and Cheney would have called for his defibrillator. But it’s just possible that  with the chief pretext unraveling, invading Iraq would have become politically untenable.

Some level of indiscretion is also essential to healthy relations between the presidency and the press. In reality, the interchange between reporters and “sources” is more of a two-way street than what is often depicted. Officials talk to reporters to get as well as give information, including about how major news organizations think and operate. And over time, if you don’t make a practice of feeding journalists, journalists are sure to feed on you—see under Rumsfeld, Donald.

For the Bush administration, a degree of mania about unauthorized disclosure seems to be inseparable from a general hostility to the free flow of information, to the public’s right to know, and to the legitimate role of the news media in a free society. In the end, this Nixonian attitude toward leaks is deadlier than a Clintonian one. No president will ever be pleased about unauthorized leaks. But after Bush’s experience, perhaps his successor will want to guard against them somewhat less vigilantly.