What’s Leak­ing Out of the White House

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Peter Baker

Shortly be­fore leav­ing Moscow af­ter four years cov­er­ing Rus­sia, I was granted a rare au­di­ence by a top Krem­lin of­fi­cial. As we talked about Vladimir Putin and his re­la­tion­ship with Pres­i­dent Bush, the Krem­lin of­fi­cial com­pared the Bush team to the Bol­she­viks and laughed at how se­cre­tive their White House ap­peared. “They’ve adopted some of our tech­niques with the press,” he said.

For most of the past six years, jour­nal­ists cov­er­ing the White House have in­deed been forced to mas­ter the art of Krem­li­nol­ogy. The fa­mously dis­ci­plined and leak-averse Bush team suc­ceeded at her­met­i­cally seal­ing the build­ing, keep­ing be­hindthe-scenes machi­na­tions, well, be­hind the scenes. De­prived of any gen­uine in­for­ma­tion about how the in­sti­tu­tion op­er­ated, re­porters were left to ex­trap­o­late what was re­ally go­ing on based on who was stand­ing where at a Rose Gar­den photo op.

But some­thing sur­pris­ing has been hap­pen­ing in the past few months. The her­metic seal is show­ing cracks, and now the most dis­ci­plined ad­min­is­tra­tion in mod­ern times has be­gun to see its in­ter­nal work­ings seep into pub­lic view. Bush’s shake-up of his Iraq team ap­peared in the news­pa­pers be­fore he

Swas ready to an­nounce it. His fight with the Joint Chiefs of Staff over plans to send more troops to Iraq played out on the front page for weeks. Se­cret memos by his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser and his old de­fense sec­re­tary showed up in print. And un­named of­fi­cials put out word that Bush’s new de­fense sec­re­tary tried un­suc­cess­fully to close the prison at Guan­tanamo Bay, Cuba.

“You al­ways have more leaks when you have a com­bi­na­tion of a late term and big con­tro­versy,” ob­served Marlin Fitzwa­ter, the only per­son to serve as press sec­re­tary to two pres­i­dents, Ron­ald Rea­gan and Ge­orge H.W. Bush. “Be­tween the war and the last two years in of­fice, I think it’s pretty nor­mal to have this kind of in­crease in leaked ma­te­rial. You’ve got to re­mem­ber that the pri­mary mo­ti­va­tion for most leaks is that peo­ple want to in­flu­ence the pol­icy or the pres­i­dent when they’re not oth­er­wise able to do so. At the end of a term and in the mid­dle of a con­tro­versy is when you can do that.”

None of this means that the White House is sud­denly leak­ing like a sieve. This is still not the most trans­par­ent in­sti­tu­tion; ex­tract­ing in­for­ma­tion can be mad­den­ing at times. Just two months ago, as the Su­per Bowl neared, the White House re­fused to re­veal what kind of television the pres­i­dent would watch it on. And in fact, many dis­clo­sures that have come out lately seem to have orig­i­nated from other agen­cies in the ad­min­is­tra­tion. But it sig­nals that the White House is no longer able to en­force its will on all cor­ners of gov­ern­ment quite as ef­fi­ciently as it once seemed to do.

“Dis­ci­pline is en­forced by fear, and there’s not a lot of peo­ple right now afraid of the pres­i­dent, po­lit­i­cally afraid,” said Joe Lock­hart, who was press sec­re­tary for Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton. “The Joint Chiefs, the Repub­li­can lead­er­ship, for­mer aides are not wor­ried about po­lit­i­cal ret­ri­bu­tion from the White House. They’re a pa­per tiger.”

In­deed, the tough­est crit­i­cism of the Bush White House th­ese days seems to em­anate from those who were once on the inside and are no longer re­luc­tant to speak out. Matthew Dowd, the chief strate­gist for Bush’s 2004 re­elec­tion cam­paign, told the New York Times this month that he is “so dis­ap­pointed in things” that he has con­cluded that Sen. John F. Kerry was right about Iraq. John R. Bolton left his post as Bush’s am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions and within weeks com­plained that the ad­min­is­tra­tion was not be­ing tough enough on Iran and North Korea. Ken­neth Adel­man, a for­mer con­fi­dant of Vice Pres­i­dent Cheney and ad­viser to then-De­fense Sec­re­tary Don­ald H. Rums­feld, now de­nounces his erst­while friends for run­ning the worst ad­min­is­tra­tion in mod­ern times. ome of what is hap­pen­ing now was com­mon­place in past ad­min­is­tra­tions. Dur­ing Clin­ton’s ten­ure — and, I’m told, dur­ing those of his pre­de­ces­sors — it was pos­si­ble within lim­its to gain in­sight into how the White House worked. Re­porters who had a ques­tion about eco­nomic pol­icy could call the pres­i­dent’s eco­nomic ad­viser, those writ­ing on health care could call his do­mes­tic pol­icy ad­viser, those with le­gal queries could call the coun­sel’s of­fice. None of those of­fi­cials in the Bush White House re­turns re­porters’ calls.

In the past, it usu­ally be­came known who was be­ing con­sid­ered for the Supreme Court or top ad­min­is­tra­tion posts long be­fore any an­nounce­ments were made. Op­tions for wel­fare pol­icy and diplo­matic ini­tia­tives were ef­fec­tively vet­ted in the me­dia be­fore land­ing on the pres­i­dent’s desk. At times, that put Clin­ton’s dis­ar­ray on pub­lic dis­play, but on many other oc­ca­sions, it helped air dis­sent and fur­ther le­git­imize de­bate.

“Within rea­son, it’s healthy for the sys­tem,” Lock­hart said. “You can’t gov­ern through the news­pa­pers. But you also can’t gov­ern with six peo­ple in the room. You have to strike a bal­ance.” In the first two years of Clin­ton’s pres­i­dency, “there was too much pub­lic ar­gu­ment,” he added. “But by the end of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, the bal­ance was pretty good.”

Bush didn’t think so, and he came into of­fice de­ter­mined to do things dif­fer­ently. Leaks, in his view, were a sign of a dis­or­derly White House. Noth­ing should get out that was not sup­posed to get out. And his abil­ity to make that stick through so many years sug­gested an un­usual sol­i­dar­ity among his team. Bush re­mem­bered peo­ple in his fa­ther’s White House com­ing to him as the pres­i­dent’s son to com­plain that they had no ac­cess to the Oval Of­fice. The son vowed not to re­peat that man­age­ment pat­tern and be­lieved that by keep­ing an open door, there would be less in­cen­tive for aides to go to the me­dia to be heard.

“You’ve got two po­lar ex­tremes there,” said Trent Duffy, a for­mer Bush spokesman, com­par­ing his White House with the pre­vi­ous one. “The main rea­son the Bush White House was able to main­tain such a level of dis­ci­pline was largely be­cause they and the vice pres­i­dent’s of­fice were re­ally in sync and there wasn’t a lot of free­lanc­ing, ver­sus the Clin­ton White House, which was the op­po­site.”

Still, as Duffy noted, the sig­na­ture dis­agree­ment of Bush’s first term did even­tu­ally be­come pub­lic — the strug­gle over the Iraq war be­tween Sec­re­tary of State Colin L. Pow­ell on one side and Cheney and Rums­feld on the other. The los­ing side in that strug­gle, Pow­ell’s State De­part­ment, was more likely to leak, a pat­tern that ir­ri­tated Bush and the West Wing.

Ev­ery White House en­gages in strate­gic leaks that are planned and au­tho­rized at the top — in­for­ma­tion placed with­out fin­ger­prints to ad­vance a par­tic­u­lar goal or un­der­cut a ri­val. Some aides in the Clin­ton White House kept a list of whose turn it was to re­ceive a leak of an ini­tia­tive that the pres­i­dent was soon to an­nounce — if it’s Tues­day, it must be USA To­day. Those sorts of mean­ing­less 24-hour scoops were de­signed to max­i­mize cov­er­age of some­thing the White House wanted cov­ered on the the­ory that the re­cip­i­ent me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tion would play up its “exclusive” and oth­ers would chase it.

The other kind of au­tho­rized leak can blow up on a White House, as the Bush team dis­cov­ered when an at­tempt to dis­credit for­mer am­bas­sador Joseph C. Wil­son IV, a critic of the Iraq war, trig­gered a spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion that ul­ti­mately led to the in­dict­ment and con­vic­tion of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, for per­jury and ob­struc­tion of jus­tice.

But it is the unau­tho­rized leak that ev­ery pres­i­dent rails against and, in the end, finds im­pos­si­ble to stop. Now Bush sees it hap­pen­ing more of­ten. In the past few weeks, for ex­am­ple, The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported on in­ter­nal e-mails sent by White House aide El­liott Abrams blast­ing the pres­i­dent’s nu­clear agree­ment with North Korea. And the New York Times de­tailed an ef­fort by Rums­feld’s re­place­ment, Robert M. Gates, to shut down Guan­tanamo Bay, a pro­posal blocked by Cheney and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Al­berto R. Gon­za­les.

Those are clas­sic Wash­ing­ton sto­ries, where de­bates on im­por­tant is­sues of un­ques­tion­able pub­lic in­ter­est are aired in the open, some­thing that might not have hap­pened all that long ago. Duffy said that may stem from a some­what more open en­vi­ron­ment fos­tered in the past year by White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and press sec­re­tary Tony Snow, who are not wed­ded to rote talk­ing points.

Rather than shun the me­dia, Snow has made a point of putting the pres­i­dent and top aides out for more in­ter­views as well as off-the-record meet­ings with jour­nal­ists. “It’s ob­vi­ous the White House is do­ing things they didn’t do in the first term,” Duffy said. “Tony has a to­tally dif­fer­ent approach.”

Snow also hasn’t sweated gar­den-variety leaks the way oth­ers used to. Af­ter Bush re­cently held an un­pub­li­cized meet­ing with a Rus­sian gen­eral ac­cused of war crimes in Chech­nya, a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial leaked it to Hu­man Rights Watch, which tipped off The Post. The re­sult­ing pub­lic­ity prompted the White House to dis­avow know­ing about the gen­eral’s past and to swear off any fu­ture con­tacts.

The Rus­sians were an­noyed. No doubt they wished the old Krem­lin tech­niques were still in ef­fect.

bak­erp@wash­post.com

BY LARRY DOWN­ING — REUTERS/COR­BIS

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