NPR logo In Washington, Leaking As A Way Of Life


In Washington, Leaking As A Way Of Life

President Richard Nixon tells reporters he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify before Congress in the Watergate investigation, March 15, 1973. Leaks about the Watergate break-in eventually helped lead to Nixon's resignation. And his administration fought and lost a Supreme Court battle over leaking of the so-called Pentagon Papers about Vietnam. Charles Tasnadi/AP hide caption

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Charles Tasnadi/AP

President Richard Nixon tells reporters he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify before Congress in the Watergate investigation, March 15, 1973. Leaks about the Watergate break-in eventually helped lead to Nixon's resignation. And his administration fought and lost a Supreme Court battle over leaking of the so-called Pentagon Papers about Vietnam.

Charles Tasnadi/AP

A leak — in a pipeline, at a nuclear plant, within a top-secret agency — can be dangerous, disastrous, deadly. But sometimes a leak can also be a good thing — drawing attention to a larger systemic problem.

The debate over news leaks bubbled up again this week after reports that The New York Times relied on information from top-tier and unnamed U.S. officials to reveal details about the U.S. cyberbattle against Iran.

Some suggest that the leaks came from the White House, but President Obama publicly denies it. Some believe that releasing such sensitive information compromises national security; others maintain that the public's right to know trumps security concerns.

This week also marks the 40th anniversary of Watergate, a political scandal driven by leaked information. President Nixon was so concerned about leaks that he put together a group of "plumbers" whose mission was to seal the leaks. But the seal — and the scandal — broke, and Nixon was forced to resign.

In Washington, leaking has long been a way of life. And, certain people argue, leaks are necessary outgrowths of an open society. Bad or good, leaking in Washington is part of the landscape.


Anatoly Liberman, an etymologist at the University of Minnesota, says the word "leak" probably comes from the notion of dryness — not wetness.

"Several things can be said about leak. First, all over Europe we have l-k words designating wetness — lake is only one of them. How these words came about and whether leak belongs to this group is anybody's guess. Second, leak is rather obviously connected with words meaning crack in German, Scandinavian and elsewhere. So perhaps the story began with losing water rather than with having or producing it. If so, leak may be related to lack."

The word is a borrowing from Dutch, Low or northern German, or Scandinavian and surfaced only in 15th century late Middle English.

Linton Weeks

Mark Leibovich, a political reporter at The New York Times and author of a forthcoming book on the inner workings of Washington, says, "Leaks have acquired a pejorative, even sinister connotation, mostly because the people inside big, important organizations are always cursing, condemning them — or prosecuting people for them."

In fact, Leibovich says, "leaks are the pressure valves of democracy. They are outlets, sprung randomly — and sometimes rampantly — through which information escapes."

Leibovich explains that in most cases, "proper channels" communications amount to salesmanship and propaganda.

That, he says, "is the government's bodily waste."

A Brief Look At Leaks

From earliest America, the artful leak has led to scrutiny — and occasionally revision — of government. To quote Founding Father Benjamin Franklin: A small leak can sink a great ship.

In fact, as noted on the website, Franklin himself was involved in a pre-Revolution leak scandal. While in England in 1772, Franklin was in receipt of more than a dozen private letters that revealed the anti-colonial sentiments of a royal governor. Somehow excerpts of the correspondence found their way into a Boston newspaper. The governor was chased out of the colonies, and Franklin was reprimanded by the Brits and returned to America, where he helped draft the Declaration of Independence.

More recent decades have brought Watergate and the Pentagon Papers case that saw The New York Times publish top-secret documents chronicling how the U.S. government misled the public and Congress about the Vietnam War; and the Valerie Plame affair, in which Plame's husband alleged that the George W. Bush administration let it leak that Plame worked for the CIA.

The mother lode of all leaks, of course, has been the WikiLeaks dump — a data drop of more than 1 million secret and classified items, including more than 250,000 documents from the U.S. State Department. WikiLeaks, which went online in 2008, has led to a fair number of stories and investigations.

The master leaker behind WikiLeaks is Julian Assange, whom some see as an e-hero and others an e-goat. On his site, Assange solicited under-the-table submissions of off-limits documents. Leakers came from out of the woodwork.

Leakers Among Us

Leaks can come from many sources, including:

  • Whistle-blowers: dismayed insiders who reveal essential, often sensitive information because they feel it is the right thing to do;
  • Ax grinders: disgruntled folks who use information as a weapon to inflict harm on another person or group;
  • Gossips: motormouth people who can't keep a secret and desire to be perceived as in-the-know about the story behind the story;
  • Cowards: those who render "inside" opinions in exchange for our indulgence of their cowardice (aka "anonymity");
  • Innocents: those who possess and speak of insider information but may not realize its import or the intent of the listener.

Leaks of sensitive information can be inadvertent or on purpose.

Lessons In Leaking

"For better or for worse, Washington journalism would grind to a halt without leaks," Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, told NPR's Lynn Neary in a 2003 radio interview. "A leak, however, is a broad spectrum of things, and it's not necessarily someone calling you up out of the blue saying, 'Joe, I am about to leak to you.' Very often, it's Lynn picking up the phone, talking to somebody she talks to all the time, and the person leaks something out even without realizing it. You've put two and two together, and you're onto another story."

How do journalists decide whether or not to trust a leak? Neary asked Rosenstiel. How do they know when it's not being planted?

"Just because you are being used by a source doesn't mean that that story is not in the public interest and it might not be worth telling, even though you are serving the purposes of somebody in the administration," Rosenstiel said. "The journalist has to decide: A, what is the public value of this information; B, what ax does the source have to grind and how direct is their information — how accurate is their information? And then C, we have a responsibility, which we often don't meet, of then sharing as much of that with the reader or the viewer as we can."

Linton Weeks

And, according to Mike Riley, the same is true about the leaks plumbers must confront day in and day out.

Owner of He-Man Plumbing in Palo Alto, Calif., Riley specializes in sewer and drain cleaning. He has a Ph.D. in petroleum engineering from Stanford University, so he understands the nature of leaks.

"There are two kinds of leaks that plumbers deal with," Riley says. "The first is the accidental leak" — those that come from burst pipes and dripping faucets.

"Then there is a second type of leak that is on purpose," he says. "Those come from fail-safe trip valves and other kinds of valves that are designed to provide relief when too much pressure builds up." The proliferation of those blowoff valves has virtually eliminated explosions of boilers and water heaters, Riley says.

Extolling the virtues of beneficial leaks — those that activate when too much power builds up in an enclosed environment — Riley sounds like a reporter.

And when reporter Leibovich talks, he alludes to the plumbing. "As reporters," he says, "we rely on leaks as nutrients for our stories, allowing us to flush away the bodily waste of 'proper channel' spin."