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Leak City

The Karl Rove/Valerie Plame/Judith Miller saga echoes a tune with many refrains. Washington, D.C. has been grappling with leaks to the press ever since the government arrived in 1800–the year that Congress held its first investigation into how the press obtained secret documents. Twice, in 1848 and 1871, the U.S. Senate held reporters prisoners in the Capitol in an effort to force them to divulge who had leaked treaties that the Senate was debating in closed session. Neither attempt succeeded, since the reporters’ newspapers doubled their salaries for every day in captivity. The Senate eventually had to release the reporters, no wiser as to the sources of their stories. Nineteenth-century senators’ tendency to debate all nominations and treaties behind closed doors stimulated no end of leaks. The press covered the secret sessions more thoroughly than most of the open sessions, and reporters suggested that the senators could get more publicity if they did all of their business in secret. Efforts to expose the leakers failed repeatedly, until 1929 when the Senate abandoned secrecy as futile.

Twentieth-century Washington reporters have been no less diligent about cultivating inside sources, from low-level whistle blowers to high-level floaters of trial balloons. Bruce Catton, who labored as a Washington reporter before he turned to writing Civil War history, defined leaks as information that officials were "either unwilling or unready" to reveal formally but would divulge to reporters they trusted not to reveal their sources. Reporters, likewise, needed to have some confidence in their sources’ proximity to the actual events and their honesty in conveying them. Government officials have a long history of leaking information to test public opinion, to sabotage programs they opposed, and to undermine their rivals. Leaks are the flip side of the press release: unofficial, unattributable sources of information intended to generate news. Stories ascribed to named experts carry an authenticity that makes editors and readers more comfortable, but government officials generally speak more candidly on background. Sources know that reporters will fiercely guard their confidentiality, to ensure their continued access and to gain the confidence of others. Reliance on anonymity, however, has left reporters vulnerable to their sources’ motives, and has often left reporters out on a limb when their sources, including various Presidents of the United States, have publicly disavowed something they divulged off the record.

Leaks have been so integral to the way administrations operate that Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., then the wartime U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, described leaking as a "presidential prerogative." He accused other officials of "usurping" the president’s right when they leaked. What annoyed presidents were not leaks, reporters noted, but leaks from those who disagreed with them. Washington has been aptly called a "Leak City," where members of Congress and White House staff freely slip information to reporters under the cloak of anonymity.

The good news from the current imbroglio is that it indicates the president’s top political advisor makes himself available to reporters, at least confidentially. For good or ill, leaks are essential for understanding what’s going on inside of any administration. As Bruce Catton reasoned a half century ago, "our particular form of government wouldn’t work without it."

-Donald A. Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corp

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