In politics, you have good leaks and bad leaks and bad leaks that are really good leaks. News media are hungry for inside information, which means savvy sources can play reporters. Hiding behind anonymity, bureaucrats too can harm politicians or plans they oppose.
Leaking in political capitals like Washington can be a sophisticated strategic game with trade-craft elements of a John LeCarre novel involving code words, secret rendezvous in person or by phone and fake messages to advance or defeat a cause and especially to detect a leaker’s identity. Remember during Watergate reporters convening with their secret source in an underground parking garage?
The Trump White House is said to be concerned about leaks involving the president’s recent telephone calls with world leaders. Thursday Sean Spicer asserted, “We’re looking into the situation, yes, and it’s very concerning.” Spicer said the leaks, not all accurate or complimentary, were of “personal concern” to Trump.
True, unplanned leaks drive some politicians crazy. President Lyndon Johnson would get apoplectic over them as personal betrayals, which they are in a way. Some officials, such as George W. Bush, minimize unplanned leaks by building strong two-way personal loyalties with senior staff.
OK, here’s the deal: We’ll never know the truth about these Trump leaks. All news consumers can do each time is evaluate the credibility of known details and the likely motives of participants.
Leaks are often intentional, designed to feed a favorable reporter with a scoop that simultaneously benefits the subject and builds bonds. Or a trial balloon to test an idea without ownership. No accident that the identity of Trump Cabinet picks or justice nominee came out the evening before the official announcement. This allows the president’s news to dominate two news cycles instead of one.
I once worked with an official who would authorize such a leak by handing over the information and saying, “See that you suppress this widely.”
Leaks can also come from an ambitious source currying favor with a reporter but selfishly hurting a boss. Bureaucrats can seek to torpedo some program or person with leaks. Leaks can even be potentially deadly.
A few years ago over-eager, oblivious Obama aides were seeking to garner undue credit for their boss. They leaked revealing and exciting details of a foiled terror plot in Yemen. The foiling was actually done by an operative working as a mole within the terror group for Saudi and British intelligence. His cover and future value were blown. And an emergency extraction had to be arranged, all because of young aides’ loose lips.
Let’s examine the leaks of Spicer’s concern: They involved specific details of Trump phone conversations, some distorted to put the new president in a negative light. Pool reporters were sometimes allowed to watch and photograph parts of the conversations from outside the Oval Office’s bulletproof windows. Only a few aides were present, typically Mike Flynn, national security adviser, and Steve Bannon, chief strategist.
So, the leaks most likely came from those who obtained later access to reports of the conversations, perhaps even members of Congress. They have a well-earned reputation for leaking like a colander.
If the administration is genuinely seeking a leaker’s identity, it could plant one different juicy detail in each copy of the report sent out. When a particular detail emerges in the media, they’d know who had received that detail.
But truth be told, no one will ever uncover the identity. And more than likely, Sherlock Spicer’s loud vow of tracking them down is actually attempted intimidation intended to curb future leaks.
But, hey, you didn’t get that from me.