Leaks keep Washington’s ship of state afloat

Sometime in 1969 — the exact date is elusive — my editor, the late Jack Steele, walked out of his office and over to my desk to report a sensational piece of information about a burgeoning scandal at the Supreme Court. According to Steele, the court had launched its own secret inquiry into the activities of one of its members, Justice Abraham Fortas.

“How do we know this?” I inquired.

Steele, a highly respected Washington veteran with an infinite number of contacts, said he had just received a call from the recently inaugurated President Richard Nixon, who told him about a conversation he had that very morning with Chief Justice Earl Warren.

“Is it reliable?” I asked, grinning.

“I don’t think you need to do much checking,” Steele replied over his shoulder as he headed back to the office.

Needless to say, the story caused a minor sensation and any number of inquiries about how we had received the information. It was a typical Washington leak, albeit not of a classified nature, designed for political advantage. Although there has been a flurry of leaks stemming from the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq, the history of such activity is far less sensational. It is an everyday occurrence in a town that thrives on inside information. In fact, it would be difficult to operate here otherwise.

A wise Washington observer once counseled that whatever the information, it is always to someone’s advantage that it is made public, and that can include the person occupying the Oval Office. Often it is only when the White House is the object of the leak and not its originator that things get dicey. Now and then, however, the president’s men — or even he himself — get caught in their own gestalt, as seems to be the case with the outing of a covert CIA operative, Valerie Plame, in retribution for her husband’s report that undercut one of the motives for invading Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s alleged efforts to buy uranium for weapons of mass destruction.

This led to the appointment of a special prosecutor, who determined almost immediately that the statute against identifying covert operatives had not been violated, but decided he had to nail someone anyway. He indicted “Scooter” Libby, a now-former aide to Vice President Cheney, for obstruction of justice and perjury over when and to whom he talked while he was not breaking the law. So far, the only victims in this nonsense have been the American taxpayers, who are continuing to foot the bill for the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald; the constitutional rights of reporters, and a correspondent who went to jail for keeping her mouth shut about a source for a story she never wrote. Is this Monty Python, or what?

Meanwhile, the president’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, still is not off the hook and has had to spend even more of the public’s time appearing before a grand jury in the silly Plame case. This absolutely thrills President Bush’s political enemies, who have been dithering for years over how to get even with the “evil genius” who devised two winning presidential-election campaigns.

Now there is increasing talk, in the wake of the disclosure that the CIA has secret prisons around the globe and that the president had authorized warrantless wiretaps, about doing what would have been unthinkable before the ascendancy of the Bush administration _ charging those who publish leaks of “classified” material with violating the espionage acts. Well, why not? The atmosphere has never been better in a judicial system that cares little about the First Amendment and the traditions that have kept government honest.

Even poor old Jack Anderson, the columnist scourge of dishonest politicians, is not immune, even though he is dead. The FBI has been pushing to see whether he has any classified documents in his files, a move being resisted by his family. Could it be that the intrepid federal gumshoes have finally discovered what brought about the infamous White House leak-plugging group known as “the plumbers” more than 30 years ago? It was Anderson’s disclosure about tightly held U.S. policy concerning the India-Pakistan dispute that started a giant internal-leak investigation and set off a chain of events that ultimately resulted in the Watergate scandal.

One can only wonder why the bureau never had the courage to take on Anderson in his prime. And, oh yes, one would have to search long and hard to find a bigger source of leaks than J. Edgar Hoover and his minions in the old days.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)