When Words Have Multiple Meanings
Steven Taylor has two interesting posts today on the subject of what constitutes a “leak.” In the first, he argues that, while the president is legally entitled to authorize selective release of information, doing so constitutes a “leak” and, since the president has constantly decried “leaks,” he is a hypocrite. He bases this judgment on a reasonable enough definition: “[R]egardless of the source and the degree of official acquiescence, a leak is simply the selective release of information to a limited number of members of the press in such as way as to fashion political advantage for the leaker.” In a follow-up, he deals with the objection that I and others have made that there is a world of difference between releases authorized by the president and done against the president’s wishes because, “the motivation for the declassification of the NIE was clearly for the political interest of the administration vis-a-vis its Iraq policy, not the purer motive of protecting the national interest.”
My objection to this line of argument, though, is that whether what the president authorized constituted a “leak” by some definition is really irrelevant when assessing the president’s hypocrisy; what matters is whether constituted one by the president’s definition. Like all presidents, this one authorizes the selective release of information to the press on a regular basis. It is the sine qua non of effective communications. Obviously, he has no objection to this practice. Therefore, it is not what is referring to when he constantly criticizes “leaks.”
It has been accepted wisdom since the first days of the Bush administration that this president places extraordinary value on loyalty. His objection to “leaks” has nothing to do with the technical merits of classification policy but rather his expectation that his subordinates act in their boss’ interest. He gets frosty when people who have information by virtue of working for him go to the press to undermine his policy, settle scores within the bureaucracy, or curry favor with reporters.
I would also argue that, in early 2003, “the political interest of the administration vis-a-vis its Iraq policy” and “the purer motive of protecting the national interest” was a distinction without meaning in the minds of the president and vice president. Whatever on thinks of their judgment in taking us to war or their dismissal of evidence contrary to their position, they clearly thought the war was vital in a post-9/11 environment and desperately fought back such things as op-eds by Joe Wilson that might undermine it at that crucial juncture.
Update: Ditto divulging the tactical planning for war with Iran to Sy Hersh.