The secretary of defense let off some steam on his airplane, warning of the terrible consequences of leaking information about internal government policy debates. He’s “appalled.” Navy Times tells us that Gates said that “disclosures of sensitive information on any ‘options under consideration’ does not serve the nation well. Nor are they in the military’s strategic interests..”
When I first came to Washington, and for many years thereafter, I thought leaks were just awful. How dare they? Among other things, I thought–and this I still think–that it has a chilling effect on internal debate. Because if you’re afraid that your remarks will appear in tomorrow morning’s Pajamas Media, you might not say it, and, after all, we do want a wide-open debate, don’t we?
One day I discussed this with Richard Helms, then the recently-retired former director of central intelligence and ambassador to Iran. His answer surprised me. “Leaks will stop the minute the top people want them to stop,” he said. How so? I asked. “I was ordered several times by a president to find the source of a leak. We found it every time. And most of the time it was his secretary of state or secretary of defense, or chief of staff, or some other very important person. Nothing was ever done.”
Q.E.D. Leaks of the sort Gates is complaining about–that is, what options are being presented, and which way is the president leaning?– are part of the policy debate, and nobody knows it better than Secretary Gates himself. The current leaks about Afghanistan policy show that, don’t they? One day we hear the president is going to send in lots of troops; the next day we learn that our ambassador in Kabul thinks it’s a lousy idea, and the White House says that the whole thing is in flux (or frozen solid). It’s a two-cushion shot: from trial balloon to congressional pronouncements to policy decision in the side pocket. And everybody’s playing this game.
I really can’t see that such leaks are terribly damaging. So people disagree. So what? It’s good, in the sort of rough-and-tumble society we know and love, to have a broad discussion. If I had my druthers, I’d also like to know who holds what position, so they can’t pretend later on, if the policy goes bad, that they weren’t really on board. Henry Kissinger once warned that the only reason to write a memo is if you want it leaked. Which is a good lesson for historians: you can’t always trust the official documents; some of them were written to deceive you and the others.
On the other hand, there are leaks that damage the country and cost lives. Those should be tracked down and the leakers should be punished. But that requires an honesty of investigation and a commitment to internal discipline that are rare. Take the Valerie Plame “affair,” for example. The advocates of the special investigation–George Tenet’s CIA initiated it, I believe–generated oceans of ink and hours of video, claiming that the poor woman had been compromised. Find the person who compromised her, and hang him.
So what happened? It turned out that her “cover” wasn’t what the Savanarolas at the Agency and in the media said it was (nobody was ever charged with “compromising Valerie Plame’s cover”). The leaker was identified–Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state–and nothing, but nothing, was ever done to him. After all, he was protected by the secretary, Colin Powell. (The lone victim was Scooter Libby, who hadn’t leaked at all, but had made a false statement to FBI investigators).
I’m all for prosecuting the Armitages of this world, but it isn’t bloody likely. From the Pentagon Papers to the latest revelations of the details of our counterterrorist programs, only the tiniest handful of government officials have faced prosecution. Indeed, they are often hailed as heroes, as “whistleblowers,” even though they signed non-disclosure promises.
So I’m not impressed with Secretary Gates’s little tirade. He knows all this. So why is he venting? If I had to bet, I’d put a small amount down on the square that says “he’s being outleaked.”