JFK's War Against Leaks



David G. Coleman is an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and the director of the Presidential Recordings Program, heading up the JFK project. He is the author of "The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis."

CIA director John McCone (foreground left) with President Kennedy on November 29, 1961. Credit: JFK Library

Presidents don't like it when classified information appears on the front page of the New York Times. Unless, of course, they're the ones doing the leaking.

Mr. Obama is the latest to confront the problem. His administration has prosecuted more cases of leaks of national security information than all other presidents combined. The FBI has assigned agents to hunt down leakers. The Justice Department has investigations underway. New rules have been put in place restricting who can talk to reporters. And legislation designed to introduce new levels of accountability for government officials talking to reporters is winding its way through Congress.

Mr. Obama is also under fire politically on the issue. Mr. Romney has called the flurry of high profile leaks in recent years a national security crisis and charged the administration with being weak on leaks. Others have accused the White House of selectively leaking information, such as details about the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound, to make President Obama appear tougher on national security. Mr. Obama has called such notions offensive and pointed to the unprecedented number of prosecutions his administration has launched.

The current debate is a striking echo of efforts by another president half a century ago to crack down on leaks.

John F. Kennedy is often remembered as enjoying fawning press coverage. And, for the beginning of his presidency, that was largely true. Eighteen months in, though, the honeymoon was over and the White House's relationship with the press fraying.

Like President Obama, President Kennedy also launched a war against leaks. Much of that war was waged covertly. Fifty years later, there's still much we don't know about it. But thanks to Kennedy's own secretly recorded White House tapes, we now have a much better understanding of the president's own central role in those efforts.

In the summer of 1962, Kennedy had secretly authorized drastic action against Pentagon leaks. Frustrated by information from top secret intelligence reports turning up on the front page of the New York Times, he waded into dubious legal territory by authorizing a covert CIA program to spy on American journalists. The CIA, of course, was specifically barred from conducting domestic operations by the National Security Act of 1947. These CIA were in addition to efforts the FBI was already engaged in, including installing warrantless wiretaps on reporters' home phones.

That CIA program, code-named PROJECT MOCKINGBIRD, was covert. There is much about it that is still classified. But we now know that the orders came right from the top -- Kennedy was caught on his own secret White House taping system authorizing it. He knew it would be controversial if it ever came to light, but he judged the stakes being too high to shy away from it. "I would think we are going to get some abuse, he said, "and, I think, [I'm] delighted to take it on this issue."

As that program was gearing up, the war on leaks entered a dramatic new phase in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis.

During the crisis, the administration had clamped down tightly on information. Few quibbled with the prudence of doing so in such a moment of national and global peril, but after Khrushchev capitulated, the administration's tight control on information remained in force.

Strict new rules were hastily put in place requiring all White House staff to report any contacts with reporters in writing. Similar programs were put in place or strengthened at the State Department, Pentagon, and CIA. As Kennedy himself explained in another moment caught on tape during the late-summer, he hoped to cast a chill over press coverage. "I think if they begin to think they're going to have to write a report on it, it's going to have a very inhibiting effect."

When reporters got wind of the new rules -- which were, ironically, themselves leaked -- and Pentagon spokesman Arthur Sylvester carelessly admitted on the record that the government sometimes "managed" the news, the “news management” controversy, as it became known, broke. In a post-Watergate, post-Pentagon Papers era, the controversy would seem quaint, even naive. But at the time, it was the most intense public debate about information secrecy since World War II.

An election loomed then, too, and the issue inevitably became political. Republicans accused the White House of selectively leaking information about the recent Cuban missile crisis to make Kennedy look tougher. The administration was accused of Goebbels-like news policies and taking the American government a step closer to becoming a Communist dictatorship. Reporters and editors raged in print against White House efforts to cast a chill over reporting of national security issues.

What was not clear until nearly half a century later was that, like the CIA program begun a few months before, the orders were coming directly from the Oval Office. "These post-mortems are going to get worse and worse," Kennedy complained in a meeting caught on tape. "So we’ve got to improve our procedures or we’re going to find ourselves in bad shape." As he explained it, the objective was to restrict information so that the administration could "put it out in our own way."

Kennedy's war against leaks wasn't very successful. It temporarily cast a chill over reporting in the short-term, but had little long-term effect in stemming the flow of classified information turning up in newspapers; the Pentagon Papers were leaked within a decade.

Leaks of classified information are unlikely to stop anytime soon. The combination of large numbers of people with access to secret information -- about 4.8 million Americans currently hold security clearances -- a culture of routine over-classification, new technology allowing near-frictionless sharing, and strong incentives for the press to publish new, important information, mean that whether Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney wins in November, the perennial presidential war on leaks will continue.

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