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Leaks Are Way of Life in Washington

October 31, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Begin with the premise that leaking sensitive information is a time-honored way of doing business in Washington. Benjamin Franklin was not above doing it and neither was Thomas Paine.

Accept, too, the idea that leaking is done for a purpose. It’s a way of stabbing someone without leaving fingerprints or even the ice pick. It can air a point of view without taking responsibility. It can marshal public opinion. It can swell the self-importance of a faceless government worker to a size beyond his imaginings, if he doesn’t get caught.

Right now the Senate is engaged in self-flagellation over the source of the leak to a reporter about the sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas before his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice. It seeks to root out the evildoer and expose his or her sins all over Capitol Hill.

The attempt to derail Thomas employed only one of an infinite variety of ways to ″get ink″ in the parlance of the trade.

Contrary to popular belief, a leak doesn’t have to be partisan. The information that President Bush’s chief of staff was using government planes for private trips most certainly came from within the White House.

Imagine you are a hard-liner working for an administration trying to better relations with the Soviet Union. You leak information that the Soviets are building a huge radar installation at Krasnoyarsk, a treaty violation. You have sowed within a doubt that opponents couldn’t plant from without.

Or suppose you want to gauge public opinion on a subject. You tickle the ear of a reporter who is only too happy to run with an exclusive story. Other news organizations’ competitive juices prompt them to get the same story. If the reaction is bad, you deny this ever was an idea seriously considered and escape without getting wet.

The Senate last week voted 86-12 to hire a special investigator to look for the leaker in the Thomas case who is, odds-on, a Senate employee.

As the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call noted: ″The Senate has battled leaks and their press conduits for more than a century, imprisoning reporters, firing aides, censuring senators, but never succeeding in damning the sluices.″

Marty Linsky, a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, mentions a well-pointed leak as far back as 1771.

Benjamin Franklin obtained letters written by Thomas Hutchinson, the appointed governor of Massachusetts Colony, in which Hutchinson suggested limiting freedoms for Massachusetts citizens in the interests of preserving order.

″He leaked them with a tremendous outcry and Hutchinson was recalled,″ Linsky says. ″It’s thought of by historians as a fairly critical event, convincing a lot of people on the fence that reconciliation with England was unlikely.″

Thomas Paine, as secretary of the foreign affairs committee of Congress, was privy to secret negotiations between the United States and France for purchasing arms to conduct the Revolutionary War. He revealed the details of the negotiations in a series of letters published under a pseudonym in 1778 and 1779.

To find leaks, says historian Samuel Gammon, ″You could go back to any defeated nomination. Nominations to the Supreme Court of the United States are peculiarly subject to them. It’s high risk because it’s a life sentence. At least one of three or two of five Supreme Court nominations get shot down.″

For an example, look no farther than the 1987 nomination of Douglas H. Ginsburg, a 41-year-old former Harvard law professor. Ginsburg’s use of marijuana both while in college and as a professor was conveyed to a reporter. After it became public Ginsburg withdrew.

There were leaks and whispered allegations in 1969 when two successive Nixon nominees for the Supreme Court were rejected. Allegations of drinking and womanizing against former Sen. John Tower, whom George Bush wanted as secretary of defense, were fueled by leaks.

Leaks have bedeviled many a president. In exasperation, Ronald Reagan said ″I’ve had it up to my keister with these leaks.″ He once ordered his staff not to talk to the press without an OK from the White House press office.

The most famous of leaks was when Daniel Ellsberg handed the Pentagon Papers - a secret study of the Vietnam War - to a New York Times reporter in 1971. That begat the White House’s notorious ″plumbers″ unit, which later begat the Watergate burglary, which produced a White House cover-up, which eventually caused President Nixon to resign.

Linsky, who has written much about the press and politics, says leaking has been a normal way of doing business in this country ″so a normal question of whether it’s proper is beside the point.″

″The reason leaks are effective,″ says Kathy Rudder, secretary of the Political Science Association, ″is that we are supposed to have an open government process. A leak releases information that one might argue should have been in the public domain all along.″

Gammon, executive director of the American Historical Association, calls the Thomas case ″part of the larger story of the artistic use of leakage.″

As a tool of government, he says, ″you could almost generalize that it works when it ought to work and it tends to fall of its own weight when it ought not.″

Anyway, he says, things haven’t yet reached the radical ″Law of the Suspects″ stage of the French Revolution.

″If you were accused of something then,″ says Gammon, ″they figured where there’s smoke there’s fire, you must be guilty and the glorious republic can’t take chances,″ Gammon says.

″So you’d be sent to the chopper. That’s how you got rid of people you owed money to.″

In more modern times all you need is a telephone.

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