- Historic Sites
The Inspired Leak
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
The leak was known of old. It can afflict either a ship or a government, it invariably means that something invisible has gone wrong, and in certain cases it ends in disaster. It is instructive to reflect on the differences between the leak as known to mariners and the leak as known to politicians, political scientists, and newspaper correspondents.
When a ship develops a leak, water that the crew tries to keep out comes in, and if the leak goes on long enough the ship goes down. The case may be ominous, but basically it is simple enough. A defect has developed somewhere in the outer skin, and in most cases it can readily be found and closed.
When a government develops a leak, a truth that the crew tries to keep in comes out, and if this goes on long enough something is assuredly going to founder—a career, a man, or even the government itself. This case may also be ominous, but it usually is not simple at all. A defect has developed far down inside somewhere, sometimes at the very heart of things, and although the leak can often enough be located it may be quite impossible to close it.
This sort of leak afflicts governments in free countries only. In a totalitarian land people know only what they are officially told, and anyone who tries to tell them things unofficially quickly learns that this is not healthful. But in democracies there are few such restrictions, and the leak is a familiar institution—is, in fact, one of the things that make democracy work.
Every government now and then develops information of one kind or another that in the opinion of the men in charge ought to be kept secret; which is to say that the government does something or plans to do something or has just finished doing something that people on the outside are not supposed to know about. In all such cases secrecy is imposed; but the secrecy never works—at least it never works very long—because there are always some government officials who disapprove of the secret that is being protected, or disapprove of the mere act of keeping things secret, or have personal or political antagonism for the secret-keepers, and these dissidents invariably find a way to bring the secrets out into the open. They leak, in other words. Information that is supposed to remain hidden gets into the hands of outsiders, including chiefly the press, and then nature and an aroused citizenry take their course.
In America of recent years this whole business of the official leak has become highly systematized, and on occasion most of the really interesting news in the daily press is the product of leaks. Such stories can be recognized at once by unvarying stigmata. The news is never attributed to any identifiable person, as is the case when some formal announcement or enactment is being reported. Instead the news is said to come from “sources close to” the White House or a cabinet member or a congressional committee, or whatnot. Just to prove that he is not writing something which he himself dreamed up, the writer will often hang every paragraph on a “sources said” limb.
This is the unfailing sign that somebody has been leaking. All that the reader needs to do, by way of caution, is remember that whoever is doing the leaking has reasons of his own For doing it. When you see a “sources said” story you may be sure that an axe is being ground, somewhere down out of sight. It may well be ground in your own interest, of course, but the one certainty is that the leak did not just happen. Somebody has got an angle.
For underneath every leak is the fact that there is a division in the ranks of the government’s servants. Somebody in this service wants to prevent, hasten, water down, or intensify what his colleagues or superiors are doing. One cabinet member may oppose the actions of another cabinet member and filant stories about it where they will do the most good. Employees of a President, a department head, a congressional cotnmittee, or a government agency wish to stop one action or to promote another, so they reveal secrets to news gatherers; and so the public learns things that it would not otherwise know, which is sometimes all to the good arid sometimes is not but which can have a profound effect on what finally happens. And the person who starts all of this is never, in any case, disinterested.
Instances of the power and prevalence of the leak are too numerous in recent history and too vivid in all recent memories to need recalling here. Important policies have been overhauled, changed, or abandoned outright because of leaks; relations with foreign countries have been altered, public men have dropped out of sight, and on one noteworthy occasion an entire administration came to disaster via the “informed sources” route, with rats leaving the ship so fast that even the dullest reader could know that the ship was about to sink.