The Art of the Leak

For a man who may have expressed his most salient feelings about the weasely nature of the press in 2000, when he instructed NBC News associate producer Alexandra Pelosi, in her upcoming HBO documentary Journeys with George -“When you see me talking to you, they are going to act like your friends again, but these people aren’t your friends. They can say what they want about me, but at least I know who I am and I know who my friends are”-you might say that George W. Bush was doing well with the media.

Well, he’s doing better than Richard Nixon. In 1962.

Mr. Bush is facing a rather hardened group, one that’s tired of being ignored and slapped around, then forced to sing the song the administration wants it to belt out.

“This is not an administration that’s interested in a happy press,” said Bob Schieffer, host of CBS’s Face the Nation . “What they’re interested in is getting their message across.”

Of course every administration wants that. But in this case, the erosion of good feeling, Mr. Schieffer said, extends even to the administration’s dealings with the Sunday morning shows-including Face the Nation and NBC’s Meet the Press , moderated by Tim Russert-which, as arbiters of the Capitol League, are supposed to set the town’s agenda for the week.

In the past, Mr. Schieffer said, it was possible to book people from the Pentagon or State Department without prior approval of the White House press office. No longer. Mr. Schieffer said, the Bush administration has broken the gentleman’s agreement that allowed for a system of rotating guests among the shows. Mr. Schieffer also said, that the Bush administration is engaging in double-booking: offering the same person on the same topic to each of the programs-Colin Powell on ABC, CBS and NBC all on one morning. (Off the Record, upon examination, saw that since last year Mr. Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld have split their time fairly equally between the big Sunday shows.)

“It doesn’t help any of us,” Mr. Schieffer said. “It basically hurts all of us to have the Secretary of State on three different shows. If it’s a big enough story, we might be tempted to go along with it. But that’s not very often. What makes things worse is that if you turn down the Secretary of State, they won’t let you have anybody else on the same topic.

“They see it as a place to get their message out,” the CBS veteran continued. “We see it as a place to get the truth out. Sometimes these things don’t match.”

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was on vacation, but White House spokesman Ken Lisaius told Off the Record: “Our philosophy is to provide the press all the information we have at our disposal, [and] to do it in a timely and accurate manner.”

And NBC’s Mr. Russert expressed no irritation with the Bush administration. “I have no problems with accessibility,” he said. “I can get my questions answered. Everyone has the same opportunity to talk to people the same amount of times. When it’s your time to talk to someone, you have to be prepared for a tough, comprehensive interview. It’s not the job of a journalist to turn over the interview for somebody’s political infomercial.”

But the relationship between the Bush White House and the national press is one of the strangest in a long time. The press is thirsty, but obedient, covering the vacations and looking for cracks and openings, but without very much to work with. While the Pentagon has lately appeared to leak like a doused Sponge Bob-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has spent his days railing at members of the military for the hazy invasion plans of Iraq that keep showing up on the front page of The New York Times -the White House has continued to remain as inaccessible as the big ranch house in Crawford.

So in the interest of improving things, Off the Record thought it might be a good moment to give the Bush administration a second shot at warming up the press, and to remind them that a happy press-like your basic Doberman pack-is a well-fed press. And the fastest way of doing that is to bring back a lost art in this freeze-dried White House, one that makes good buddies of the press faster than family-quarters tours or Christmas cookies: bring back the Big Leak.

“The Clintons were masters of it,” said Michael Isikoff- Newsweek investigative correspondent and Bill’s bane during the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky days-of the leak, “with bad news and good news. They would leak something to get ahead of the news cycle, and when it did come out, they’d be able to say, ‘That’s already been reported.’ That was their stock-in-trade.”

Mike McCurry, Mr. Clinton’s press secretary from 1995 to 1998, said he was one of the more conservative in terms of leaking, but did add that during the 1996 Presidential campaign, “we made a pretty good effort” to get to the people on the Sunday interview shows, as well as the interviewers. “We would sometimes leak information to a Senator to bring up during the show,” he said.

“Or we’d go to a host and say, ‘Look, Tim , can we share some information, Tim ? Can we pass on some stuff that’s useful to ask?’ That’s not so much of a leak as something that’s a line across the transom.” (Mr. Russert snorted a little at this. “We’re fed information about how great they are,” he said. “We get thousands of e-mails from people. We get no shortage of advice. The key is your own preparation and research.”)

Another Clinton administration official recalled using leaks to get the press to play up Mr. Clinton’s transformation from a tax-and-spend man to a lean and mean warrior who fought in the name of deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility. “What we did,” the official said, “was to release different sets of numbers to The New York Times , The Washington Post , USA Today and The Wall Street Journal over a period of four days-so, by the fourth day, it’s all over. You had four straight days of ‘Clinton’s cutting this, Clinton’s cutting that.’ It achieved our objective: It showed Clinton cutting the deficit. We got coverage from four different outlets. There was something for everybody.”

Mark Fabiani, formerly the special counsel to President Clinton as well as the Gore deputy campaign manager, recalled his happiest leak from the 2000 Presidential campaign. When his team learned the word ” RATS ” had been placed nearly (you may remember) “subliminabally” in a television advertisement attacking Vice President Gore, Mr. Fabiani gave the information to Rick Berke-now The Times ‘ Washington editor-alone.

“When we came into contact with that piece of information,” Mr. Fabiani said, “we knew what we wanted to do with it: We wanted to give it to Rick Berke and The New York Times .

“With a story like that,” Mr. Fabiani continued, “you need people to take it seriously. With Rick Berke, you had a serious reporter whom everyone takes seriously. If you put it out into mass circulation, some people might not know what to do with it, what to think about it. This way, you had Rick Berke and The New York Times telling people what they needed to think.”

Mr. Berke didn’t quite see it like that. “That was one of the few instances,” he said, “where someone just hands you a piece of information like that. When I got it, I consulted experts-Republican strategists, media people. I asked them if they thought it was important. And they said yes. I didn’t write it like an exposé; I wrote it like a feature story. It was unusual, but I would do it exactly the same way the next time.”

Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary from 1992 to 1994, saw the lack of leaks in the Bush administration as rooted in party ideology.

“There are definite differences in how the two parties view the press,” Ms. Myers said. “Republicans are all about respecting their elders. With the Democrats, you had a bunch of people who spent their lives throwing rocks at the establishment. When they became the establishment, they didn’t know how to react.”

And while Ms. Myers couldn’t recall a favorite leak, she did lay out some important rules of the craft to Off the Record.

First, she said, like an opera singer in Vegas, you’ve got to know your audience.

“You need to know what you want to achieve and who you want to reach when you’re leaking,” Ms. Myers said. “If you leak it to The Times , you’re hoping to hit a broad constituency, because everyone reads it first.”

Second, don’t treat the reporters like puppies-mindless, lapping creatures ready to run at your command. Don’t try and sell information that might cause an editor to roll his or her eyes. And don’t leak half of the story when you know the other half will contradict anything else you’ve leaked.

“You can’t give a reporter baseless information with no news value,” Ms. Myers said. “You can get away with it once, but not twice. They’ll stop listening to you if you try and feed them stuff that’s not of any use to them. Always be complete. You never want the reporter to look like an idiot. Nobody wins when you make a reporter look bad.”

As for covering your tracks, Ms. Myers recommended varying your cover, depending on where you want people to think the information is coming from. If you want the leak to appear as if it’s coming from someone high up, use “a senior administration official” or “someone close to the President.” If you want to distance yourself from the piece of information, give it to, say, the Treasury Department and have them call The Washington Post .

And, she said, when you absolutely, positively want a piece of information known, give it to a member of Congress.

“In that case,” Ms. Myers said, “you don’t even have to tell them to leak it. You know, within three minutes of giving the information, you’re going to get a call from the Chicago Tribune or whatever paper’s in the representative’s constituency. When you have those things, it’s great, because they get credit for it and you might need a vote from them.”

Granted, even after the spate of corporate scandals and a disastrous economic collapse, George Bush’s popularity after 11 months of war still ranks up there with his dad’s in the American mind. But should bad news ever come to him, Ms. Myers recommends telling the whole story all at once to one news outlet, so that “the rest of the papers will play it down.”

Indeed, Ms. Myers said, Bill and Hillary Clinton might have avoided years of Whitewater hearings and the Starr Report if they had followed a plan conceived in the early days of their administration: leak all the documents they had on the Arkansas land deal to The Washington Post .

“Then the story would have gotten out,” she said, “but it would have been totally proprietary. It would have looked like it was The Washington Post ‘s own private obsession.

“The story was going to leak out anyway,” she said. “What you want to do is avoid a scenario where everyone’s looking to get a piece, thinking, ‘If you’re trying to keep if from me, it must be really bad.’ Certainly that happened with Whitewater.”

But that’s not the Bush administration’s game. The Bush bunch plays it more like 18 holes at Burning Tree: small gallery, short game, private scorecard.

But Mr. Isikoff, for one, isn’t happy about it. His stomach is growling. “I’m pro-leak!” he said, “The more, the merrier! The truth is that they do, at the end of the day, contribute to an open government. From the point of view of the incumbents, they ought to welcome the leaks. When they don’t-when they put too much fear of God into people, when they get too uptight-that’s when mistakes tend to be made.

“The mistakes compound one another,” he said. “And that’s what produces scandals.”

From his mouth to George Bush’s ears.

The Art of the Leak