Leaks to the Media ... An Old Story?

History Q & A
tags: Hot Topics, PRISM scandal, leaks, NSA, Valerie Plame

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Related Links

● Leaks through History

● Was It Illegal for President Bush to Leak Classified Secrets to Bob Woodward?

● Deep Throat and the FBI's History of Hiding Its Own Leaks

● Why Did President Ford Ban Assassinations? (Explains that Ford leaked the fact that the CIA had plotted the assassination of foreign leaders.)

● Rick Shenkman: Leaks that might have changed the history of Vietnam

● Athan Theoharis: Deep Throat and the FBI's History of Hiding Its Own Leaks

● CIA Spy Case: Valerie Plame Leak

Most administrations complain about leaks, which weaken their ability to control news. In 2001 President Bush chastised members of Congress for leaking information to the media learned at secret intelligence briefings. He ordered the secretary of state and other members of his administration to restrict the release of secret information about the counterterrorism campaign to top leaders in Congress. After several important senators objected, the president relented.

There are several types of leaks. There are leaks by whistle blowers like Daniel Ellsberg, who leak information in the name of the public. Then there are leaks by high officials who are at war with other high officials. The most famous example of a leaker of this sort was probably Henry Kissinger, who in the Nixon administration used leaks from the National Security Council, which he headed, to undermine the power of the secretary of state, William Rogers. There are also leaks by low-level bureaucrats engaged in classic turf battles. High officials in all administrations going back to George Washington have leaked information in an attempt to control the public agenda and undermine their political opponents.

Following is a list of important and controversial leaks in American history.


During the administration of George Washington, Treasury Secretary Hamilton leaked confidential information to the British that undermined American diplomats, who were then negotiating the Jay Treaty.


During the administration of James Madison, Secretary of State Robert Smith repeatedly leaked documents to Madison's enemies in the Federalist Party. Madison eventually replaced Smith with James Monroe.


After Nelson Miles, the commanding general of the Army, publicly criticized admirals in the Navy and subsequently leaked a memo in which he revealed that Army soldiers had inflicted" cruelties and barbarities" on Philippine rebels, President Theodore Roosevelt became furious. In retaliation, Roosevelt floated a trial balloon. He leaked a story that Miles's retirement was under consideration. When the public expressed continued support for Miles, Roosevelt backed off.


In November 1942 Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles received incontrovertible evidence that Hitler planned on annihilating the Jews of Europe. Welles immediately leaked the information to Jewish leader Dr. Stephen Wise. Wise then promptly held a press conference to announce the news.


After the Japanese Rape of Nanking, FDR leaked to press stories of Japanese atrocities. At the time he was seeking new funds to expand the Navy.

During World War II FDR became convinced that the wife of his trusted aide, Harry Hopkins, was leaking material damaging to the administration. According to Victor Lasky, FDR placed a wiretap on Hopkins's phone.


According to Victor Lasky, during the presidential campaign of 1960 Kennedy aides"filched" secret polls produced by the United States Information Agency that showed that American prestige had declined under the Republicans. Kennedy leaked the polls to the New York Times and then used them to undermine the campaign of opponent Richard Nixon.

In the summer of 1961 President John Kennedy instigated one of the most important leaks in American history. The consequences were devastating. Worried that he had been humiliated by Khrushchev at a celebrated meeting in Vienna, Kennedy leaked to the newspapers evidence that the United States had clear strategic nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union. The leak humiliated Khrushchev. Under pressure, the Soviet leader ordered nuclear missiles to be slipped into Cuba. This decision led directly to the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.


In 1971 the Joint Chiefs of Staff were caught spying on the National Security Council. The plot was uncovered after a leak to journalist Jack Anderson.

The most famous leak in American history occurred in 1971 when Daniel Ellsberg, an opponent of the Vietnam War, leaked a confidential history of the war to the New York Times. The disclosure of the history, which became known as the Pentagon Papers, prompted Nixon to create the infamous Plumbers Unit. The Plumbers subsequently broke into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in hopes of collecting damaging information against him. Later, several members of the Plumbers were involved in the Watergate break-in.

While many Americans have never heard of Daniel Ellsberg, nearly all have heard of Deep Throat. Deep Throat was a key source for the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reporters for the Washington Post. In 2005 the family of Deep Throat revealed his identity: W. Mark Felt, one-time acting director of the FBI.


In 2004, syndicated columnist Robert Novak exposed Valerie Plame, the wife of diplomat Joseph Wilson, as a CIA agent. TJarl Rove, White House Deputy Chief of Staff, and Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, and Deputy Secretary of STate Richard Armitage were implicated in the leak -- Libby was eventually sentenced to thirty months in prison and a quarter of a million dollar fine for making false statements during the investigation of the leak, though President Bush commuted the jail sentence.

The leak of Plame's CIA affiliation was widely seen as a form of political payback for her husband's New York Times op-ed which criticized the Bush administration for manipulating intelligence reports to justify the Iraq War. Wilson headed a 2002 mission to investigate whether Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger in the late 1990s. Wilson concluded that he had not, but nevertheless President Bush referred to the allegation in his 2003 State of the Union address.


Despite promises on the campaign trail (and throughout his first term) to "open up government," Barack Obama has been, in the words of The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf, an "abject failure on transparency." The Obama administration, he wrote in 2010, "has charged more would-be whistleblowers with violating state secrecy laws than all previous administrations combined."

Nevertheless, the administration's efforts to clamp down on leaks have met a significant challenge in the face of technology. The most damaging leaks during the Obama presidency have been the publication of classified DoD footage, 92,000 documents related to the war in Afghanistan, 400,000 documents related to Iraq, and 251,287 diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, and the revelations of the NSA's PRISM program.

Unlike in the past, the leakers of recent history are young and relatively junior. Bradley Manning, the major WikiLeaks source, is a mere 25 years old and a private first class in the U.S. Army; Edward Snowden, the source for the NSA PRISM leak, is a 29-year-old former Booz Allen Hamilton contracter.

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More Comments:

John H. Lederer - 7/19/2005

"Violating federal law to blow the cover of a CIA agent in an attempt to intimidate her whistle-blowing husband obviously failed here."

That seems absurd on the face of it. If you wanted to intimidate, wouldn't it be "We'll tell unless...".

Nor of course would it be too intimidating waiting for a reporter to call and raise the subject...and then telling the reporter not to write a story because the reporter would be going out on a limb.

And of course there is a problem with intimidation if you tell the reporter that it is "super double secret".

Seems a bit more likely that the impetus for disclosing the information was to discredit what we now know to have been falsehoods, and to discourage reporters from writing stories based the falsehoods.

But I think the story line has been written here and facts will not interfere with it.

John H. Lederer - 7/19/2005

I assume you are arguing that leaks that serve the truth are good -- like the Rove leak about the unreliability of Wilson's rendition of what he reported back after his trip to Niger?

I don't think it is that simple. For instance the Pentagon Papers revealed by the reports on Sovet reaction, that we were listening in on Kosygin's car phone conversations -- a closely guarded intelligence bonanza. That had a big cost, though probably less than the public gain.

The problem is that the leaker has abrogated to himself the power to decide what should be secret and what should not be. The person who originally decided something should be confidential very frequently decides wrongly and for the wrong reasons, but at least there is some accountability and assumedly some knowledge. The leaker may have neither.

Lewis L. Gould - 10/1/2003

In his biography of Joe Tumulty, John Morton Blum writes at length about the celebrated "Leak Investigation" of 1917 that involved accusations that the president's secretary had profited from inside information regarding the stock market based on knowledge of the peace notes sent between Woodrow Wilson and the Germans in December 1916. Republicans pushed for a probe that eventually cleared all involved, including Bernard Baruch and William G. McAdoo, of wrongdoing.

Elia Markell - 10/1/2003


So far no one knows who blew Plame's cover, if there actually was any cover left to blow, or why. I say "why" because as you so clearly show, no reasonable administration person could have expected anything positive from doing this malevolently. Hence, the default logic tells you to look elsewhere (dream on, me, eh?).

In the meantime, we do have a case of a cover being blown maliciously and deliberately. I speak of Robert Torricelli who blew the cover of a CIA operative in Guatemala a few years ago. Here we KNOW the operative was undercover. We KNOW who blew the operative's cover. We KNOW that CIA activities were compromised. Yet NOT A SINGLE DEMOCRAT complained one little intsy-wintsy bit. Odd, no? And Torricelli had to wait a little longer before going down in flames on another matter entirely. He paid not one dime or one day in the can for what he did.

Oh, I forgot, that was the BAD CIA, in Guatemala and all that. I guess this is the GOOD CIA we have now, right? Sorry. The fact is Torricelli did every single thing the Bush-hating crowd wants desperately to believe someone high up in the Bush adminstration did (Rove, Rove, Rove, Rove and Rove are the first five choices). And not a Democrat back then (1995) CARED! In fact, until about this time last week, just about the only thing you could EVER get a Democrat to say about CIA covert operations was that they were EVIL. Now all that's changed. My, oh my. It's a wild world.

L. W. Gluchowski - 10/1/2003

If I can paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, who paraphrased G.K. Chesterton, when a leaker decides that any stick will do, he picks up a boomerang.

mark safranski - 10/1/2003

While the JFK leak may have been self-serving it did not prompt the Soviet arms build-up. In fact, it prompted something more dangerous, Khrushchev's attempt to gain nuclear parity on the cheap by secretly installing intermediate range missiles in Cuba.

Khrushchev saw this killing three birds with one stone: the USSR could quickly gain a measure of equality with US nuclear forces by reducing warning time and increasing accuracy; he could protect revolutionary Cuba and boost Soviet prestige in the Third World and he could thwart domestic rivals in the Presidium who were pressing for a massive expenditure on the USSR's poorly designed ICBM force which stood at only 5-6 missiles. It was a high-risk and provocative gamble that Khrushchev lost.

As a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the men who overthrow Khrushchev - Brezhnev, Kosygin, Podgorny and Suslov - implemented a massive defense build-up to secure their own power ( unlike Khrushchev, Brezhnev had his political base in Military Industry)and expand Soviet influence by reaching true superpower status.


Earl Tilton - 10/1/2003

Violating federal law to blow the cover of a CIA agent in an attempt to intimidate her whistle-blowing husband obviously failed here. The husband is not intimidated, everybody is interested because he has inside knowledge of the deceptive distortion of intelligence reports used to snow the American public into supporting a botched war, and the whole process suggests a vindictive unscrupulousness rampant within the White House. Not unlike Watergate. The comparison may not be fair, but the longer Washington Republicans keep trying to cover things up by denying the obvious need for an independent outside investigation, the more public suspicions will mount, and those suspicions will keep public attention focused on the Iraq quagmire. If Karl Rove was responsible, it may be the biggest blunder of his and George W. Bush's career.

David Corn - 10/11/2001

The illuminating thing about this list is that it shows leaks tend to fall into one of two categories: those that serve the truth, and those that serve the leaker. I suppose sometimes a leak can do both. But it seems the self-serving leaks on the list did the most damage (JFK leaking info on US nuclear superiority, which prompted a Soviet arms buildup), while the whistle-blower leaks (the Pentagon Papers) actually had a positive impact. So long live the right sort of l eaks.