May 14, 2013

Okay, I don’t really know whether Barack Obama was involved in his business of subpoenas to get phone records of Associated Press reporters in order to track down leaks (and note that it’s not just presidents; Republican senators wanted the leaks investigated). And let’s put aside for now the important question of whether doing so was unethical or otherwise scandalous.

The basic point is that politicians are getting leaks all wrong. They’ve been getting them wrong for decades, long before Lyndon Johnson (supposedly) would revoke decided-upon nominations if word of whom he was planning to pick leaked; long before Richard Nixon’s obsession with leaks led (in part) to half his White House winding up in prison or otherwise disgraced.

Presidents — politicians in general, but presidents in particular — have been treating leaks as huge threats to their control over information. That’s true, looked at one way — but there’s a better way to look at it.

Leaks are an important source of information.

Not all leaks. Of course, to begin with, plenty of leaks are not mysterious at all; the politicians in question were the ones who leaked. Other leaks seem to be part of ongoing press relations — an official passes along something to a reporter to solidify a relationship, presumably because she hopes to get favorable coverage down the road. Those leaks can’t really tell a president anything.

A lot of times, however, the fact of the leak can be used to extract important information, even if a president doesn’t know precisely who leaked. Sometimes the leak points to important bureaucratic battles that the president should know about; it might even indicate a dissenting view that didn’t make it to the president through normal channels. Think, for example, of questions about the occupation of Iraq prior to the invasion, when the civilian leadership downplayed concerns that a large force would be needed.

A leak might also indicate strong resistance to a presidential policy. That was true of the most famous single leak in history, the Pentagon Papers; it was also true of the most famous leaker ever, Mark “Deep Throat” Felt, who was upset about White House operations (although he also was upset about being passed over for FBI Director).

Obviously, interpreting a leak is difficult — even more so when the identity of the reporter’s source is unknown. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And the results can be valuable. Remember: presidents are in the business of collecting and using information. How does a president know if a policy will work? He’s rarely an expert; he has to rely on experts. But it’s awfully difficult to know which ones to trust and to ensure that all sides are presented fairly. Leaks can help solve that problem. Or at least, they should, if the president is paying attention properly.

Meanwhile, the information that gets out is almost always overrated by presidents and other politicians. Most of the time, the war against leaks is much more about a presidential quest for control — over information, over his own White House, over the government — than it is about real damage the leak has caused; other times, the damage is “real” but confined to a few negative press stories over the course of a news cycle or two. It’s the rare leak indeed that does any lasting damage to government operations or to a president.

So it’s pretty simple: Presidents should use leaks as a source of information and stop worrying so much about stopping them or finding and punishing the culprits.