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The Inspired Leak

July 2024
15min read

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.

The fact that the leak has been elevated to one of the most important mechanisms by which the democracy governs itself simply means that the overwhelming power of public opinion is finally being recognized; or, if that power has always been recognized, it is at least being called on to act much earlier than ever before. In the old days public opinion came into play after congressional debates or presidential announcements; now it comes first, applying a final Inexorable verdict to actions, programs, and ideas that are still in the formative stage. The process of government has taken on a new velocity and is responsive to a new set of controls. Nobody, including those who have the most immediate access to those controls, really kriows what responsibilities are involved or what the ultimate consequences may be. Like so many of the great changes in American life, this one has gone into operation without the benefit of any advance planning whatever. The blithe insouciance with which the new controls are being handled is most engaging and also just a little bit disturbing.

Nothing quite like the modern manipulation of the leak can be found in the past. (The emphasis here, of course, is on the word quite . The thing is organized and systematized now in a way the Founding Fathers never could have anticipated.) But ours has always been a democratic government, which means that it has always been somewhat loose-jointed, which in turn means that there have always been leaks. Some of these, like some of today’s, have had an important part in the nation’s history.

Consider, for instance, the once-famous case of the Ostend Manifesto.

In 1853 a pleasant nonentity from New Hampshire named Franklin Pierce was President of the United States. His administration wanted to annex Cuba—an idea strongly supported by militant spokesmen for the slave states and by fuzzy-minded folk who had a vague belief that America just ought to expand somewhere regardless, but strongly opposed by Northerners who were having increasing doubts about slavery and the people who supported it. Pierce’s administration thought it might be possible to persuade Spain to sell Cuba—$130 million tops was what it had in mind—and if this could not be done, which would probably be the case, perhaps somebody could stir up an uprising in Cuba that would detach the island from Spanish dominion. If that happened, annexation by the United States would take place as a matter of course. They hoped.

This was quite an idea, but it was clear that the times were not propitious. Overseas there was the beginning of the Crimean War, which created troubled waters but probably did not create conditions favorable for a New World republic that wanted to fish in them. At home there was the beginning of something that the Pierce administration was bound to consider of paramount importance—the Kansas-Nebraska fight over slavery, stirring up strongminded men who considered the Cuban program either irrelevant or an abominable crime.

As a makeshift, the administration convened a meeting of three of its most important diplomats—James Buchanan, minister to Great Britain; Pierre So’fblé, minister to Spain; and John Mason, minister to France. These men were to meet, compare notes on the attitudes of the governments to which they were accredited, and see what sort of program could be worked out. The meeting was to be held in Paris, but no secrets could be kept in Paris and it was agreed to have the meeting in Ostend. So ordered, for October 9.

The conferees met, meditated on their own importance, and took the bit in their teeth. Drafting a top-secret memorandum for Washington, they proposed that the United States try to buy Cuba outright and that if this failed (as it certainly would, the proud Spaniards being in no mood to sell) the United States should consider whether it ought not to go ahead and take Cuba by force of arms. This went far beyond anything desired by the American Secretary of State, William L. Marcy, for whom all of these ministers worked, but this was what they wanted and anyway the whole business was completely secret.

Except that these men included, in their persons and on their staffs, some of the leading flannelmouths in American history, and garbled versions of what had been proposed immediately appeared in newspapers in Europe and America. There had been, in other words, a wholesale leak, coming not because anyone had an axe to grind but simply because the men involved just could not keep their flapping mouths shut. The Ostend Manifesto, as it became known, raised a storm on both sides of the Atlantic. By March of 1854 Secretary Marcy (who had planned to let the idea simmer quietly for a time) had to send the report to Congress, which made it public property. That killed it. The administration had lost the fall elections, the rising clamor over slavery in Kansas and Nebraska made the addition of more slave territory in the Caribbean unthinkable, and the Ostend Manifesto quickly died, surviving in the national memory only as an oddity for historians. An act of immeasurable folly had been prevented by a leak.

A leak of quite a different kind came three years later. James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, another amiable man, known in the political jargon of the times as a doughface—a northern man with southern principles—had been elected President of the United States and was to take office on March 4, 1857. The nation just then was wracked by the question of Popular Sovereignty—the notion that the people of a territory should decide for themselves, before statehood, whether in that territory slavery should be permitted or excluded. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, proprietor of the northern half of the Democratic Party, had staked his political future on the idea that the people of a territory should have that right; the party’s southern wing, with which Buchanan was intimately allied, was firm in the faith that such a right did not and under the Constitution should not exist. Buchanan was about to deliver an inaugural address in which he was bound to declare himself on this issue, and he was painfully aware that no matter which side he took he would alienate—probably forever, because tempers were inflamed—half of the party that had elected him. A politician who believed in offending nobody could not face a more dreadful situation.

However, he saw a glimmer of hope. The Supreme Court was about to hand down a decision in the case of Dred Scott, and there was a fair chance that this might take Buchanan off the hook—if he could just know in advance which way the cat was going to jump.

Dred Scott was a black slave, originally owned by an army officer in St. Louis. This officer presently was transferred to duty in Rock Island, Illinois, and later to Fort Snelling, Minnesota. He took Scott with him, and when at last he was ordered back to St. Louis he took Scott along; and now Scott was suing for his freedom, on the ground that he had lived for some years in free states and that Fort Snelling was on soil which Congress, by the Missouri Compromise, had declared forever free.

If the Supreme Court did not want to handle a hot potato it had an easy way out. It could hold that Scott as a slave could not be a citizen and so could not sue in federal court, and it could also hold that it was his status in Missouri that determined whether he was a slave or a free man. But the interesting part about the case was the Missouri Compromise angle. Did Congress have the power to legislate freedom in a territory? If it did not, the old Missouri Compromise was dead; furthermore, if Congress could not prohibit slavery in a territory, the territory itself—a creature of Congress—could not do so either; in which case Senator Douglas’ Popular Sovereignty plan was as dead as Moses … and in which case, also, Mr. Buchanan would be off of a cruel hook.

So in the weeks before his inauguration the Presidentelect undertook to open a leak. He wrote to his friend Justice James Catron asking how the court was going to rule, and when Justice Catron, after stalling briefly, indicated that the odds were favorable and suggested that Buchanan write also to Justice Robert Grier, Buchanan did so. Grier replied that he had shown the letter to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and Justice James M. Wayne, and that “we fully appreciate and concur in your views as to the desirableness at the time of having an expression of the opinion of the Court on this troublesome question.” This was plain as a pikestaff; the court was going to make a sweeping ruling on the whole broad question of slavery in the territories, and knowing the justices as he did, Buchanan had no doubt at all what the ruling was going to say.

Fortified by advance knowledge, then, Buchanan in his inaugural referred to the vexing question of slavery in the territories. This, he said, was “a judicial question, which legitimately belongs to the Supreme Court of the United States, before whom it is now pending and will, it is understood, be speedily and finally settled.” With unctuous rectitude he went on to say: “To their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit.”

Sure enough, two days later the court handed down its decision, declaring that nobody anywhere could keep slavery out of a territory; whereby it knocked out the Missouri Compromise, destroyed Douglas’ Popular Sovereignty idea, and brought the nation a long step nearer to its most terrible war.

It was all a little too obvious: Buchanan had so clearly known what the answer was going to be when he piously called on his countrymen to abide by the court’s findings. The Republicans loudly charged that the President and the Chief Justice had been conspiring together; and while this was not true, the President had exposed himself as a weakling who had schemed ineptly. He had succeeded only in splitting the Democratic Party.

A half century later a stronger President was at least partly involved in a leak of a very different sort, with a happier result.

In the early i goo’s the American people were proud of their navy, which was quite new. It was being built up as fast as President Theodore Roosevelt could persuade Congress to act, it had recently destroyed two Spanish squadrons in spectacular one-sided battles, and it enjoyed a worldwide reputation for its fine marksmanship. But in 1902 President Roosevelt had on his desk a letter from an unhappy young officer enclosing two detailed reports indicating that the fine new ships were in fact dangerously inferior because of poor design, that the prized marksmanship was actually atrocious, and that the Navy Department was so badly organized that it could neither admit nor correct these flaws. He added that the promotion system was just about guaranteed to bring mediocrity to the top commands.

This was disturbing stuff, and there was not much the President could do about it just then; most of the reforms called for would take extensive acts of Congress, which was inclined to be quite happy with a navy that was so goodlooking and had recently been so victorious, and never at any time does Congress enjoy having a President tell it how to legislate about the Navy. One thing Roosevelt could do on his own hook, and this he immediately did; he took the officer who had complained so sharply, Lieutenant William S. Sims, and appointed him inspector of target practice.

Sims performed excellently. He had no place to go but up. At the famous Battle of Santiago the American fleet had fired 9,500 projectiles, of which exactly 123 hit Spanish ships—and in the course of a few years Sims had changed things so that the Navy really did rank with the best in the business as far as gunnery was concerned. But on the other points no reform had been made or even attempted, and Sims was getting restless. So, in 1904, he sat down with a friend, a marine artist named Henry Reuterdahl, and gave him the material in the two interdepartmental reports that he had forwarded to the President. This, he cautioned, was not to be published just yet; Reuterdahl was to keep it on the back burner and wait until Sims gave him the go-ahead.

This came, at last, in 1907, when the end of Roosevelt’s time in the White House was approaching and the Navy was much in the public eye on account of the battle fleet’s famous cruise around the world. Sims told Reuterdahl to print his story whenever he could arrange it, and in January, 1908, it came out in McClure’s Magazine , one of the most aggressive mass-circulation publications of that period.

It made a huge splash. American battleships, it asserted, were so badly designed that their armor belts were actually below the water line. They suffered from low freeboard to such an extent that in any kind of rough weather they could not fight their guns. Open shafts led from turrets to magazines, so that a fire or explosion in a turret could blow up the whole ship. (How serious this sort of defect could be was shown eight years later at Jutland, when a similar flaw led to the destruction of three British battle cruisers.) And the Navy’s famous system of Bureaus was incredibly inefficient—so much so that no seagoing officer ever had anything to say about the design or construction of warships, which were in the hands of shoreside technicians answerable only to the Secretary of the Navy, whose knowledge of how ships ought to be put together depended entirely on what these technicians told him.

All in all, this was quite a bill of goods, and top brass was indignant. The Navy had a regulation forbidding officers to publish, directly or indirectly, information about acts or measures of the department, and Reuterdahl obviously had had access to those reports Sims had written several years earlier. The Secretary of the Navy sent Sims a severe letter remarking on the “very unusual similarity” between the magazine article and the supposedly secret reports, and Sims took the letter to the White House and showed it to President Roosevelt.

It is possible to suspect that Roosevelt had either put Sims up to giving Reuterdahl the reports in the first place or had at least carefully looked the other way while it was being done. In any case, he now gave Sims a light pat on the wrist and then held a sheltering wing over him while the admirals blew up a storm. Sims went on to win promotion, and when the United States entered the First World War he became commander of U.S. naval forces in European waters. Meanwhile a Senate committee investigated the Reuterdahl article in the full glare of publicity (which was exactly what Sims had hoped for), and the complaints about the Navy’s defects were out where naval officers and taxpayers alike were bound to see them and take thought about them.

It would be nice to report that this set everything right, but things don’t often work out so neatly. Reform came slowly—the cumbersome Bureau system was not greatly changed for many years—and the next few battleships that were designed still had all of the shortcomings Sims had been complaining about. But in time the reforms did come, better design was attained, and seven or eight years later American battleships were recognized on both sides of the Atlantic as leading the pack in plan and performance. When the real showdown finally came, the Navy was precisely the instrument America needed.

One of the most noteworthy dustups about the publication of forbidden information came in 1932, when a man named Herbert Yardley wrote a book on the way the United States had learned how to uncover Japanese military secrets. Yardley knew what he was talking about—he had been head of the intelligence division known as the Black Chamber during and after the First World War, and after Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson closed this project in 1929 with the remark that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” Yardley had written an extremely indiscreet book about what had been done, naming nineteen nations whose secret codes the Black Chamber people had solved. This was unfortunate, because a number of these nations promptly changed their codes, and when Yardley did his book on the Japanese, various people in the government felt that he ought to be stopped. At one time United States marshals seized the manuscript of his book on the ground that it violated a statute relating to the sanctity of secret documents, but nothing came of this and early in the New Deal administration a new law was devised providing fines and imprisonment for any government employee who published or connived at the publication of material prepared in a diplomatic code to which he, as a government worker, had had access.

The Senate was mildly puzzled, apparently inclined to wonder why the government needed to “create a new crime.” Senator Tom Connolly of Texas, guiding the bill for the administration, had a quick reply: “All the bill would do is simply to make it a criminal offense for a scoundrel to betray his confidential relationship with the Government.” In addition, it provided that anyone else who conspired with a government agent to use confidential material “for private gain or private profit ought to be punished.” That seemed reasonable—after all, nobody can object to punishing scoundrels—and in the end the bill was passed, going on the statute books as Section 95 2 of Title 18, United States Code. But Senator Hiram Johnson looked toward the future and expressed a certain worry. This bill, he said, would not touch the particular offense it was aimed at (Yardley’s) but would remain on the statute books … “a criminal law with harsh penalties, until—far in the future, when its original purpose will have been forgotten—it will be used for another purpose for which it was never intended and may do gross wrong.”

Both senators, of course, were right, as far as men can be right in a politically uncertain world, and the two points of view on leakage of government information are still valid. There are government files, dossiers, memoranda, and so on that ought to remain hidden; some secrets are like phosphorus in that they burst into flame when exposed to the air. So governments are forever trying to devise laws that will protect the sanctity of such matters.

… and yet; pass such a law today and it will fly up and hit you in the face a generation later, when some situation you could not possibly have foreseen (l’affaire Watergate may be a case in point) generates the explosive force that will drive it out into the open. Sometimes the national welfare demands the publication of knowledge that was supposedly suppressed for the nation’s good.

And this perhaps is another way of saying that over the long haul too much knowledge is better than too little. Democracy’s road is always bumpy but it is the only road we have, and if it bruises us at times we at least keep moving. The leaks that cause these bumps now and then seem unendurable, but now and then they are also utterly essential.


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