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Friday, July 15, 2005

What's a Leak?

I know this is slightly pedantic, but without pedantry, I'd be a much quieter person. Here goes: Pundits, reporters, et. al. consistently use the word "leak" to describe the manner in which Robert Novak became aware of Valerie Plame's occupation and identity, and now Karl Rove has been identified as one of the leakers. Democrats are naturally outraged, and are calling on Bush to fire Rove for leaking, as he had previously pledged to do to whomever the leaker turned out to be. Even though it looks increasingly clear that Rove didn't violate any laws in his conversations with reporters (his conversations with investigators and the grand jury are another matter), the Democratic line is that leaking is bad and unethical, and that Bush has said as much, and that he's a hypocrite if he doesn't fire Rove.

Bush has made clear his position on leaks: "Leaks of classified information are bad things," he said two years ago. "We’ve got too much leaking in Washington. I want to know who the leakers are." (And keep in mind, "leaks of classified information" is a much broader category than, say, "leaks of an undercover agent's identity that are found to have violated federal law." Is Valerie Plame's identity classified? Is internal information about a CIA agent's role in recommending an operative for a mission to Africa classified? I don't know, but they sound like the sorts of things that ought to be. If they are, Karl Rove is guilty of "bad things" even if he didn't violate the law.)

But what is a leak? Much of the discussion around this story has focussed on the notion of anonymity, namely because Judith Miller is in jail for refusing to break what she says are confidences. So maybe a leak is what happens when government officials speak to reporters under the veil of anonymity. If that's the case, Bush is going to have to fire or reprimand a whole lot of people, because leaks occur nearly daily in Washington, at the insistence of the White House. They are called background briefings. Many in the Washington press corps have repeatedly asked that briefings periodically offered by the State Department, Defense Department, White House, and other government institutions be conducted on the record, and they have been repeatedly rebuffed. The White House and its various departments insist--officially and as policy--on anonymity every day.

OK, so it's not just anonymity that makes something a leak. There must be another component. Background briefings are conducted to explain the administration's point of view and advance its interests, so maybe a leak is what happens when someone speaks to a reporter anonymously if what the leaker says to that reporter is contrary to the interests of the administration.

That sounds about right. But if it is, then Karl Rove can't reasonably be said to have leaked anything. We know he spoke to Matt Cooper and Robert Novak, and we know it was under cover of anonymity, but it's ridiculous to think that he was saying anything contrary to the administration's interests. For one, Rove is the one who decides what the White House's interests are, and for two, the e-mail Cooper sent to his editor describing his conversation with Rove makes clear that Rove brought Plame up in order to make Cooper wary of Wilson's claims--in other words, he was doing it to advance the White House's interests.

So what we have is an anonymous source saying things that the White House wants said. That sounds to me an awful lot like a background briefing. But it's certainly not a leak. Someone needs to think of a better word.