In much of the post-Vietnam War era, when Brzezinski served, journalists were kept far from Situation Room deliberations. During the Cold War, there was little upside, and lots of risk, in revealing the inner workings of national security.
But in the past two decades, as the national security spotlight has focused more intensely on the White House, reporters have pushed to get details about key moments and internal debates, from war planning to counterterrorism operations.
And administrations, Democratic and Republican, have used the attention to enhance presidential power over national security. They know they can’t ignore the 24-7 media beast. They feed it continually, not just to help the public understand what is happening, but with an eye to the next turf battle, to the next election — and to their place in history, the first draft of which is now written in real time.
The best reporters covering the White House, Pentagon, State Department, Homeland Security Department, intelligence agencies and Congress don’t stop with spokesmen. They reach deep into the bureaucracies. They know the political players. They have deployed with military leaders.
National security media elites (we have Walter Lippmanns and Henry Luces today, too) have rich relationships with current and former government officials. If there is information they need, they know who has it, along with that person’s e-mail address or phone number. That’s how “leaks” — disclosures of details about ongoing operations — happen.
In recent weeks, a number of news stories and books have included insider accounts of deliberations in the Situation Room and the Oval Office. Members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees have expressed concern that the stories reveal sensitive and classified information. Some have suggested that the Obama administration is leaking information for political gain. Two federal prosecutors have been assigned to investigate, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is facing congressional demands that he appoint a special counsel.
Leaks happen for all kinds of reasons: altruistic, bureaucratic, personal and political. We have yet to achieve Middle East peace — not for lack of effort, but because we have yet to achieve a leak-proof process.
Do White Houses leak? All the time. Some leaks are authorized, some aren’t. More are about domestic than foreign policy, most often floating policy trial balloons, shooting down options the administration doesn’t like or previewing presidential announcements. They can also backfire, as in the case of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Are leaks about politics? Absolutely. Administrations that effectively explain what they are doing tend to be reelected; those that struggle to create a successful media narrative don’t. That is why officials go to great lengths to reconstruct how a consequential decision was made. “Tick-tock” news stories reveal conflicting options and heated exchanges, who was in the know, and whose views carried the day with the president.