James Reston, the late New York Times reporter who set the standard for Washington coverage in the second half of the 20th century, loved to remind his readers that “a government is the only known vessel that leaks from the top.” President Donald Trump was inaugurated on January 20, 2017; just four days later, he would first appreciate the accuracy of Reston’s adage.
At 8:41 a.m. on January 24, a clerk working for the chief of staff of the National Security Council, sent a draft executive order labeled “Detention and Interrogation of Enemy Combatants” to some NSC policy staff members, setting in motion the first top-level leak of the Trump administration as reported on the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post.
Leaks are not particularly unusual. What is unusual is the Times’ disclosure of a good deal of the backstory behind this leak—and what that tells us about the likelihood that more leaks will come.
The proposal obtained by reporters called for a review of the Obama-era policy that shuttered secret detention prisons known as “black sites,” where interrogation teams tortured prisoners. Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo both strongly oppose reinstating the CIA’s torture methods. Although Trump has said that he “absolutely” thinks that torture is effective, he also said that he would defer to Mattis and Pompeo on the issue. Yet, as the Times reported, both denied having seen the draft that reporters had obtained, which “contained crossed-out phrases and typos,” and “was clearly not meant for public consumption.”