The leak

Posted: Oct 08, 2003 12:00 AM

As events unfold from the white-hot revelation that two senior Bush administration officials may have leaked the identity of a covert CIA employee, along with the political and governmental effects, do not neglect the very human drama of the story.

As a former Reagan White House staffer, and as Newt Gingrich's press secretary for seven years, I have been involved in leak hunts -- both as the hunter and the (falsely) hunted. Major leak hunts are always damaging to the institutions in which they occur.

The greatest of White House scandals/tragedies -- Watergate -- most probably started when a plumbers' unit was created to hunt down a leak. And, in the related activity of seeking a mole (an enemy double agent) inside intelligence agencies, both the CIA and British intelligence almost ripped themselves apart during the 1960s and 1970s in their various hunts for disloyal employees.

But unlike most leak hunts (and all mole hunts), the presumed leakers in this case are not consciously disloyal to President Bush: quite the contrary. Assuming the basic outlines of the story are true, these leakers were trying to protect the president from what the leakers thought were disloyal CIA employees.

The White House and the CIA have been in almost open conflict over the characterization of CIA intelligence assessments related to Iraq and WMDs for half a year now. When CIA Director George Tenet publicly fell on his sword (after being pressed to do so by senior officials at the White House) over responsibility for the 16 words in the president's State of the Union address, CIA employees were out the same day backgrounding reporters on why it was not really Tenet's or the CIA's fault.

At a deeper level, there is a strategic policy difference between the institutional CIA view (which tends to see terrorism as an inextinguishable fever that can at best be kept at a relatively low temperature) and the White House view (that it is an enemy that is susceptible of definitive defeat if enough resources and shrewd policies can be brought to bear against it).

The partially submerged CIA-White House struggle exploded when Ambassador Joseph Wilson went public with his criticism of the president's 16-word African uranium claim. Bush loyalists were justifiably outraged. Dark suspicions of CIA disloyalty hit critical mass. Their blood was up. It was at that point that the alleged leak occurred.

Without hazarding a guess as to the names of the leakers, it is overwhelmingly likely that they were, and are, passionate Bush loyalists. (Unlike in previous administrations, I do not know a single senior White House official who is not deeply, emotionally committed to the president. There are few, if any, time-servers on his staff.) Moreover, the men and women with responsibilities for the war on terrorism (out of which pool doubtlessly would be found the leakers), are passionately committed to the rightness of the president's anti-terrorism policies. For them (and for many other Americans) his personal and policy success is actually a matter of national life and death.

Usually, leak hunts are targeted on people suspected of leaking against the institution. Such leakers either disagree with the policy of their boss, are aligned with a different political tribe in the Washington jungle or feel underappreciated by their superiors. Sometimes they are just showing off or building relationships with reporters. In any of those circumstances, they have already emotionally disconnected themselves from the institution and superior they nominally still serve. Their highest objective is to stay hidden and survive. But almost certainly in this instance, the leakers were trying to help the president they are deeply committed to on both a personal and policy basis.

So, put yourself in the leakers' minds today. They must feel deeply conflicted. Their actions have backfired. Instead of brushing back disloyal CIA political players, there are FBI agents rifling through the White House files of the leakers' co-workers. Democratic Party partisans are crying out for special prosecutors. The president -- for whom they have been loyally working 14 hours a day -- probably to the significant neglect of their spouse and children -- is put on the defensive, passively expressing hope that the Justice Department will get to the bottom of this problem.

These leakers -- being senior officials -- understand how debilitating the investigation is to their co-workers and the president. The White House is distracted from its primary policy and political duties, while staff-to-staff relations suffer from suspicion and embarrassment.

When the leakers sit in their living rooms at night -- three scotches on the wrong side of sobriety -- painful thoughts must torment them. The choices are ugly. Come forward and confess, thereby saving your president but harming you and your family, perhaps irrevocably (legal costs, humiliation, financial ruin, end of career, perhaps divorce). Sit tight, hope not to get caught and know that your silence has damaged and may destroy your president, and perhaps your country you care so deeply about. Or drown yourself in destructive behavior and try to forget. From the perspective of time, the leakers would see that the first choice is the right one. We should all hope they gain that perspective quickly.