The well-executed media leak is one of Washington’s most highly developed art forms. Every presidency has learned to feed bits of stories to reporters, disguised as comments by a “senior administration official” or “an official close to the president.” When a story is too hot for a leak from the White House, the administration will find a way for the story to surface from a cabinet department, making sure to keep the leak far from the Oval Office. And, some White House officials say slyly, if they want a story to get out, they simply tell it to members of Congress, for no tale ever stays quiet for long on Capitol Hill.
White House reporters live like animals in captivity, penned up in the press room or shuttled around on the White House press room. They survive on meals and scraps that the press secretary regularly feeds them—but they are always on the prowl for the behind-the-scenes tale that will separate their reports from everyone else’s.
That’s what makes the leak such an irresistible tool on both sides: the White House, which wants to get a story out without making it a “White House story,” and the reporter, who wants the story no one else has. Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, in fact, wrote, “The White House is the only sieve that leaks from the top.”
Those same forces, of course, make the leak one of Washington’s favorite tools for dissidents and hothead aides. Officials on the losing side of a White House battle can always plant a story with a friendly reporter. And since so much of the White House debate revolves around the news cycle—the phases of capital news and media deadlines—skillful officials can steer internal administration debate by stirring up discussion in newspapers, network news, and the ever-whirring cable news networks.
Everyone reads the Washington Post, New York Times, and other major newspapers. Key officials get the regular White House clipping collection, prepared before dawn every day by staff members who stay up most of the night. It’s impossible to wander the corridors of the White House and the nearby office buildings without seeing CNN, Fox News Network, or MSNBC glowing on small televisions tucked into office corners.
The White House agenda revolves around getting the message out, but there is always fierce competition about what the message should be. Senior staff members work carefully to influence the media—and each other—through the press, and what’s reported in the media tells them how the battle for voters’ souls is going. It’s scarcely surprising, therefore, that presidents and their key advisers have increasingly obsessed over how to craft the media message—and how to prevent unintended leaks from distracting attention from the president’s theme.
In the first years of the Reagan administration, small leaks often turned into spewing gushers. Columnist Mark Shields wrote that Reagan had been victimized by an “uninterrupted flood of damaging leaks.”
The tug-of-war among Reagan’s own advisers produced leaks and counterleaks that added up to a picture of a president out of touch and a presidency out of control. Reagan himself finally responded with a blistering statement, “I’ve had it up to my keister” with the leaks.
Afterward, Chief of Staff James Baker ordered that only designated officials answer questions on certain topics. That calmed the leaks for a while, but the insatiable demands of the media for news, and of staffers for spinning a story their way, inevitably fed the process again. By the time Baker became secretary of state in Bush 41’s administration, Washington reporters acknowledged him as one of the capital’s master leakers. Similarly, during the Clinton administration the ongoing battle for damage control and the constant battles among staffers caused information to ooze from all parts of the administration.
Bush had seen the leak process firsthand from his role as a close adviser in his father’s administration. He not only knew how the game was played, but also knew how to identify the leaker. From the administration’s earliest days, Bush made clear he would not tolerate leaks. Every new president says that. Few have been as successful as Bush in making it stick. Everyone knows their precise role on the team, and “anyone who talks out of turn doesn’t last long,” as the Brookings Institution’s Stephen Hess put it.
Although some Republicans compare George W. Bush to Ronald Reagan, the discipline of his staff more closely rivals the quasimilitary style of the Eisenhower administration.
The information discipline extended even to some battles with Congress. Vice President Cheney refused to divulge information about his energy task force to the General Accounting Office, the auditing arm of Congress. The administration has been stingy in responding to Freedom of Information Act requests. And some officials who crossed administration policy were handed their heads.
Mike Parker, who had once been a Republican member of Congress from Mississippi, was used to speaking his mind before colleagues on Capitol Hill. Bush appointed him to head the Army Corps of Engineers, and Parker told a Senate committee that the administration’s budget cuts would have a “negative impact.” He also told senators that he did not have any “warm and fuzzy” feelings toward the Bush administration. Budget Director Mitchell Daniels was furious. He forwarded the testimony to the White House, and Parker was told he had 30 minutes to resign—or he would be fired. The resignation was announced a week later.
The cohesiveness of the president’s staff and cabinet helped caulk the ship of state and protect it from leaks. Donald Regan, Reagan’s Treasury secretary, noted that “the Bush loyalists have done an amazing job.” They have loyalty to the president, and the president reciprocates. The staffers “don’t need personal flattery, and they don’t need to have they egos stroked, and therefore they don’t have to leak to show how important they are.” For the administration’s first year, leaks were virtually nonexistent.
Time magazine learned, in July 2001, of an internal debate over the patients’ bill of rights, but Chief of Staff Andrew Card worked quickly to ensure that the episode did not recur. In late 2001, when the president announced a new management agenda that affected the jobs of federal employees across the capital, none of the papers got the story in advance. The president’s commitment to be leak-free has sometimes led to decisions withheld even from the cabinet members affected. The officers affected by Bush’s decision in June 2002 to create a new Department of Homeland Security did not find out until just a few days before the announcement.
However, the president’s staff certainly did not lose their taste or skill for strategic leaking. In August 2001, as Bush prepared to announce his decision on stem-cell research, stories constantly surfaced on whom the president was talking to, how deeply he was considering the issue, and how he talked about it with virtually everyone whom entered the Oval Office. Before then, many news stories had continued to portray Bush as an amiable dunce. The stem-cell stories portrayed a president who was thoughtful, careful, serious, well-briefed, and fair in sorting out the complex issues in the decision. Unintended leaks, meanwhile, were rare. David Gergen, the Reagan staffer who told the press in 1983 about the antileak effort, was impressed. Gergen said, “They run a button-up place.”
Team Bush’s determination to avoid leaks extended to Capitol Hill. Congressional staffers had been given classified information to support their investigation on the September 11 attacks, but some of that information found its way into the newspapers. In a bizarre circle, FBI investigators began interrogating the congressional staffers, who were investigating possible intelligence failures by the FBI. The FBI even suggested they might use polygraphs to determine if the congressional staffers were telling the truth.
The administration’s antileak discipline, however, began to break down in early 2002. Following the terrorist attacks, the administration quietly began to rotate key officials to secret locations to ensure that government authority would be continued in case of further attacks.
The Pentagon considered creating an “Office of Strategic Influence,” to create “disinformation” and other strategies of spinning public opinion in other countries. A leak of this plan quickly killed that idea.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was furious that reporters learned of intercepted al Qaeda messages suggesting that the September 11 attacks were imminent. Reporters learned that Arabic communications included comments that “Tomorrow is zero hour” and “The match is about to begin.” Rumsfeld launched a broad inquiry into who leaked the information.
The summer-long debate about a possible war with Iraq led to a quick increase in leaks and counterleaks. Details about war plans began appearing in newspapers. Some stories suggested Baghdad would be the first target. Others said it would be held until the end. By some accounts, war would require hundreds of thousands of troops. Others said that a much smaller Special Forces attack could secure victory. “Reliable sources” suggested that war would not begin until the December end of Ramadan—but that it would have to start before the weather began to warm in March.
Some stories suggested that Saddam Hussein was sure to lure American troops into Baghdad, where they would face punishing urban warfare, while others argued that even elite troops would cut and run at the first sign of a serious fight. Comedians joked that Saddam Hussein had everything but an engraved invitation to watch the first cruise missile land—except that anyone reading the leaks and counterleaks would have a hard time figuring out what the strategy was.
Secretary of State Powell was pushing for a diplomatic offensive through the United Nations, to build an international coalition before launching war. Some hawks in the White House staff and in the Defense Department did not want to have to compromise military objectives to build an uneasy, unstable diplomatic consensus. Some military officers were uncomfortable about the risks of facing Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons, and they were not eager to face urban warfare. The leakers were among Washington’s best, and there was little doubt that the internal administration debates were being played out in the pages of the Washington Post and New York Times.
Bush was uncharacteristically quiet during the media offensives and counteroffensives. Some observers worried that he might have been overwhelmed by the complexity of the decision or that he was unable—or unwilling—to stop the public side of the internal debate. On September 12, 2002, however, Bush delivered a firm speech before the United Nations. He detailed Iraq’s violation of a long string of United Nations resolutions, and he made it clear that if Iraq did not disable its weapons and change its regime, the United State was prepared to invade.
As it turned out, Bush was neither overwhelmed by the issues nor unwilling to decide them. He was sorting out the options and meanwhile was allowing the debate to play out in an unusually public way, especially for Team Bush. Once he decided, the leaks stopped and the administration’s officials spoke with a remarkably uniform voice on a notably complex strategy. Bush has been compared to Reagan in style and Eisenhower in management, but in shaping his Iraq strategy he was more like Franklin D. Roosevelt.
FDR was famous for pitting his advisers against each other, allowing them to fight (sometimes publicly) among themselves, and choosing his policy from the process. He found that the disputes tended to surface the big issues and test alternative solutions. The strategy Bush announced at the United Nations took a page from the doves’ book—he decided to give diplomacy a chance to resolve the crisis, and he allowed other nations the chance to join the process. But it also took a page from the hawks’ book—he decided that, if diplomacy proved unsuccessful, the United States would take military action against Iraq and force a regime change. From the turmoil of the 2002 summer debate, Bush emerged with a crystal-clear strategy, and Team Bush fell into step behind it.