by Don Ritchie
It is richly ironic that during the same week the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting was awarded to Susan Schmidt, James V. Grimaldi, and R. Jeffrey Smith of the Washington Post, for their coverage of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, news reports also revealed that the FBI has been seeking to comb through the papers of the late Jack Anderson for classified documents. Anderson himself won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing Washington’s secret tilt toward Pakistan during the Indian-Pakistani War–much to the displeasure of President Richard Nixon. It was to plug such leaks of classified information from his administration that Nixon appointed the notorious White House “plumbers,” who eventually triggered the Watergate scandal.
Investigative reporting enjoyed its heyday during the Nixon era, with Pulitzer Prizes going to Pentagon reporter Seymour Hersh in 1970, for his exposure of the My Lai massacre, to Anderson in 1972, to the New York Times in 1972 for its publication of the classified Pentagon Papers, and to the Washington Post in 1974 for its relentless coverage of Watergate. At the time, Jack Anderson pointed out that those prizes had been awarded for exposing government secrets: “The Pulitzer board therefore has recognized the right of the people to know what goes on in the back rooms of government.”
Although it is unclear what sort of government secrets might still be found in Jack Anderson’s papers, or whether those documents might offer any clues about who leaked them, we at least know that era’s single most significant leaker, who kept the Washington Post so well supplied with information about the Watergate burglary and cover-up, was W. Mark Felt, the deputy director of the FBI.
Historically, the higher-placed leaks have come from the highest places, even from the very top. When he was U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. once lectured American reporters that leaking was a “presidential prerogative,” and that when other government officials leaked they were usurping the president’s right. Leaks only annoy presidents and become “treasonous” when they run contrary to official policy, but without them there would be no investigative reporting and the media would be reduced to publishing just the news the government wants its people to read. There are plenty of nations like that in the world today, but the United States is not yet one of them.
Don Ritchie is the author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps.