White House, Pentagon livid about leakers

This was the week in which President Bush's wartime information challenges suddenly looked more formidable. At one podium, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spent more time railing against anonymous Pentagon employees who spoke freely with reporters than he did giving those same reporters useful information about the nature of military action in Afghanistan as it shifted from air to ground. At another podium hours later, Tom Ridge, the new homeland security director, and an array of anxious government officials strained to resolve questions about evolving anthrax science, the hunt for faceless murderers, and the extent of an unprecedented threat. Bush may be fighting the first war of the 21st century, but he is also shadowboxing with some old enemies at home. How much information is too much? Two U.S. servicemen died in a helicopter crash in Pakistan, but the Pentagon left details scarce. Two U.S. Postal Service workers died after inhaling anthrax spores in Washington, and the administration produced information to counteract rising alarm that danger loomed just a postage stamp away. The President's recent fuming about leakers in Congress, which prompted him to briefly attempt to limit the number of lawmakers privy to classified briefings, centered on his assertion that secrecy in the assault against terror would save U.S. lives. One issue debated this week was whether enough information was given to postal employees to protect their lives. In a long war, which Bush has promised, the administration's concentration on secrecy, on the one hand, and the public's expectations of fuller disclosure, on the other, are both likely to intensify. It is, it seems obvious to say, an uneasy tension. Rumsfeld, in particular, sounded this week as if Bush's battle was being waged as much inside the Pentagon as outside it. Knowing full well that a patriotic citizenry sides with its commander in chief, he complained in front of the television cameras that information anonymously disclosed to The Washington Post and other media outlets jeopardized clandestine military operations, to the benefit of the enemy. "I think that the release by a person in the government who had access to classified information ... clearly was a violation of federal criminal law, and second, it was something that was totally in disregard for the lives of the people involved in that operation," the Defense Secretary said on October 22. "I couldn't care less where the source of the leak is; the responsibility is the same. It puts people's lives at risk, and it's just terrible." Rumsfeld admonished reporters: "How the press handles this new conflict will also contribute to the success of it." How the administration handles the truth about its new kind of war is surely the more important burden. Some old lessons still hold true. First, nonsanctioned disclosures of government information are a fact of life for all administrations; and, second, all Presidents hate leaks. Bush's desire to control information about his assault on terrorism is not novel. What is important is how far his administration decides to go to keep its confidences, believing it knows best about the public's right to know. John F. Kennedy in 1962 was so concerned with disclosures to The New York Times about Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles that he briefly weighed Clark Clifford's suggestion to establish a CIA unit to investigate journalists. Lyndon Johnson so despised leaks to the media that he once switched his choice of an appointee because The New York Times stole his surprise, and he discouraged memorandums from advisers on sensitive matters because he feared the memos would find their way into print. An obsession with information funneled to reporters was, of course, part of Richard Nixon's undoing. Ronald Reagan at one point considered imposing a blanket ban on all background and off-the-record interviews, and he approved an executive order requiring federal officials to get White House clearance before talking to the media about national security matters. George H.W. Bush believed leaking was the height of disloyalty, and he launched internal probes on more than one occasion to identify culprits in hopes of firing them. One such investigation, which involved copies of documents slightly altered to trace routes into journalists' hands, eventually revealed that Bush's own budget director, Richard Darman, was a leaker. He kept his job. Bill Clinton "was in a rage," former White House press secretary Jake Siewert recalls, when internal deliberations about ground troops in Bosnia made their way into the press. "He would tell [National Security Adviser] Sandy [Berger] to 'find out who this was, and stop them!' " Siewert said, "but it was always a fruitless task." When the pressure is on, there is always an instinct in any administration to tighten the circle of those close to important information while still appearing to the public to be forthright. The smaller circle satisfies the need for control, but does nothing about the appetite for candor, or the tendency in Washington for frustrated policy makers shut out of the circle to drop their advice on the President's desk via a newspaper. To hear White House officials tell it, the federal government has everything under control; the bureaucracy is coordinating smoothly and responding appropriately; the President has not lost sleep or changed his routine; and victory is certain. All of those assertions, without any partisan overlay, are suspect. If candor about what the United States doesn't know, about presidential worries and perceived risks, and about how and why decisions are made comes from anonymous truth-tellers rather than from government podiums, Americans should be relieved. And the administration should be forewarned.
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