Jack Shafer: Why Leaks Are Good For You

In the wake of New York Times reports about U.S. Iranian cyberattacks and Taliban drone attacks, excellent Reuters media critic Jack Shafer has a smart post on why classified-information leaks should be celebrated, not denigrated.

The most significant leaks, especially of state secrets, usually end up igniting policy debates that should have already been burning. The progenitor of this kind of leak is the Pentagon Papers, which placed U.S. intervention in Vietnam in a new context. The December 2005 New York Timesaccount about the National Security Agency’s warrantless interception of thousands of international phone calls, international emails, and other data stands as another example. Published over the objections of the Bush White House and the NSA, the Times coverage by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau inspired Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and others to contemplate the prosecution of the Times and its journalists under the espionage laws. It also rekindled a civil liberties debate that had gone moribund during the early months of the “war on terrorism.”

Which caused the hardworking staff to remember a classic Bush administration leak.

In 2002, someone in the Bush administration leaked to New York Times Iraq puppet Judith Miller that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling aluminum tubes to construct an atomic bomb. Then vice president Dick Cheney went on NBC’s Meet the Press and cited the Times story as proof that Hussein was stockpiling aluminum tubes to construct an atomic bomb.

From a Democracy Now (6/8/11) interview with Bill Moyers:

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking about war, I wanted to take this forward. I want to return to a clip from your 2007 special. It’s when you came back to PBS, and it was a documentary called Buying the War. This part goes back to September 8th, 2002, the day the New York Times published a front-page article by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller entitled “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts.” That same day, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, hosted by, well, the late Tim Russert.

BILL MOYERS: Quoting anonymous administration officials, the Times reported that Saddam Hussein had launched a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, using specially designed aluminum tubes. And there, on Meet the Press, that same morning, was Vice President Cheney.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: There was a story in the New York Times this morning that says — and I want to attribute to the Times. I don’t want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but…

JONATHAN LANDAY: Now, ordinarily, information, like the aluminum tubes, would — wouldn’t appear. It was top-secret intelligence. And the vice president and the national security adviser would not be allowed to talk about this on the Sunday talk shows. But it appeared that morning in the New York Times, and therefore, they were able to talk about it.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: It’s now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring, through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge. And the centrifuge is required to take low-grade uranium and enhance it into highly enriched uranium, which is what you have to have in order to build a bomb.

BILL MOYERS: Using the identical language of the anonymous sources quoted in the Times, top officials were now invoking the ultimate specter of nuclear war: the smoking gun as mushroom cloud.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire a nuclear weapon, but we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.

ERIC BOEHLERT: Those sorts of stories, when they appear on the front page of the so-called liberal New York Times, it absolutely comes with a stamp of approval. I mean, if the New York Times thinks Saddam is on the precipice of some mushroom clouds, then there is really no debate.

BOB SCHIEFFER: We read in the New York Times today a story that says that Saddam Hussein is closer to acquiring nuclear weapons. Does he have nuclear weapons? Is there a smoking gun here?

DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: “Smoking gun” is an interesting phrase.

COLIN POWELL: As we saw in reporting just this morning…

TIM RUSSERT: What specifically has he obtained that you believe would enhance his nuclear development program?

BILL MOYERS: Was it just a coincidence, in your mind, that Cheney came on your show, and others went on the other Sunday shows, the very morning that that story appeared?

TIM RUSSERT: I don’t know. The New York Times is a better judge of that than I am.

BILL MOYERS: No one tipped you that it was going to happen?

TIM RUSSERT: No, no. I mean —

BILL MOYERS: The Cheney office didn’t make any — didn’t leak to you that there’s going to be a big story?

TIM RUSSERT: No, no. I mean, I don’t — I don’t have a — this is, you know — on Meet the Press, people come on, and there are no ground rules. We can ask any question we want. I did not know about the aluminum tube story until I read it in the New York Times.

BILL MOYERS: Critics point to September 8th, 2002, and to your show, in particular, as the classic case of how the press and the government became inseparable. Someone in the administration plants a dramatic story in the New York Times, and then the vice president comes on your show and points to the New York Times, and it’s a circular self-confirming leak.

TIM RUSSERT: I don’t know how Judith Miller and Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of the New York Times. When Secretary Rice and Vice President Cheney and the others came out that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that. My concern was is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.

Best. Leak. Ever.

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8 Responses to Jack Shafer: Why Leaks Are Good For You

  1. It was Ahmed Chalabi, which added layers to the intrigue.

    And don’t forget Scooter’s bizarre code-laden letter to Miller, warning her not to testify against him.

  2. Chalabi, you’ll recall, was either a trusted inside source on whom we were basing the rationale for war, or a double-agent who’d betrayed us, depending on where in the lie/leak/deny process the Bush Administration/NYT was.

  3. “Best” in what sense? Most successful (for the Bush administration)?

  4. Curmudgeon says:

    This conversation could go one of two ways:

    1. The leakers and their motives. Or,
    2. Journalists as sheep in the age of WoodStein journalism.

    Withe either conversation, no participant really comes up smelling like roses.

    • It’s connected to Watergate in this way: Republicans of the Nixon era realized that they’d have gotten away with it if they’d been able to control the media — so they set out to do so, and now do.

      For most Americans, Watergate was a lesson on the corruption of power; for Republican operatives and their wealthy supporters it was a lesson in what needed to change to avoid their getting thwarted in the future.

      It was the birth of the modern uber-funded radical right wing that now controls the public discourse — and two-and-a-half of the three branches of the government.

      • Curmudgeon says:

        Not sure I buy that, Mick.

        Your remark begs the question as to why the radical liberal left wing was such a flop with their Air America ploy and the disaster in the 2010 congressional elections was such a stunning rebuke.

        You will have to either grant that the radical right wing has a better message or that the radical right wing are better and smarter operatives.

        Let me put it this way, Mick, I think your thesis is a little narrow.

  5. Your suggesting that Judith Miller, Scooter Libby, Ahmed Chalabi, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and every media voice were all spinning the same fabrications – unchallenged – during the run-up to the Iraq War because that’s what people wanted to hear?

    You’ll have to do better with readers of this blog, Mudge.

    Post-Watergate, the brain trust and wallets of the right set out to remove the barriers to consolidated media ownership, and to repeal the Fairness Doctrine. They achieved both, and for one reason: to control the message. Now they do.

    I once read a Safire column appear in the NYT the night before the printed version, and while I was reading it, heard Candy Crowley on CNN say the same thing almost verbatim. It had been online exactly 30 seconds.

    I once personally challenged the NYT’s night editor to explain their changing the content and details of online Iraq War stories without attribution to reflect changing Bush Administration spin on the events, and when he couldn’t sustain his lies to me anymore the stories disappeared (and are still missing) from their archives. Whole days of deliberately planted lies are missing. Is that because it’s what the people want?

    What’s really at play here, sadly, is that unlike other countries, the US has not yet suffered the sort of devastation this kind of oligarchic media control inevitably brings – so they have yet to realize just how little their own government and media can be trusted. It actually speaks well of them – but it will turn out ugly in the end.

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