Tension Over Press Leaks
Two events in the past week have thrown the spotlight on the troubled relationship between the Bush administration and the news media, raising questions that are worrisome on both sides of the divide.
The resignation of Scott McClellan as the White House press secretary was followed within days by the announcement that a senior Central Intelligence Agency employee, later identified as Mary McCarthy, had been fired for improper contacts with reporters.
Neither incident is entirely clear in its origins. McClellan said he asked to be relieved, but his stepping down was part of a continuing reshuffle ordered by the new White House chief of staff, Josh Bolten, who had made it clear he regarded press relations as a trouble area.
The firing of McCarthy, a veteran intelligence officer who had held sensitive administrative posts, came after CIA Director Porter Goss and his White House superiors had ordered an intensive crackdown on leaks to the press.
McCarthy had already initiated steps toward retirement and was apparently only days away from ending her career when she and others were asked to take lie detector tests -- and then she was dismissed.
For the first few days after the action was announced, the agency and the White House let stand the impression that McCarthy had been a source for the stories about secret U.S. detention centers in Europe that won a Pulitzer Prize for The Post's Dana Priest on April 17. But when McCarthy's lawyer said she had no part in that transaction, CIA officials confirmed that was the case -- leaving it unclear exactly what she had done to bring down the punishment.
Priest, of course, has said nothing about her sources beyond the generic description that the information came from current and former intelligence officials.
This is a troubling case for those of us in journalism. Our view is that it's the government's responsibility to keep its secrets secret and that it's our responsibility to ferret out information so the public is aware of the actions being taken in its name.
We recognize there are sometimes legitimate national security considerations for withholding information. In the case of Priest's stories, The Post agreed to the government's request not to identify the countries where the secret prisons were located.
But we also know that administrations of both parties tend to restrict information -- and that the only way for the public to learn of questionable policies or actions is for conscientious individuals to break that official code of silence.
Government has a legitimate claim to enforce the promise of confidentiality that officials sign when they go to work for an agency such as the CIA. The tool of enforcement can be humiliating and distasteful -- and a lie detector test is both. But its use is not unprecedented. When there was talk of polygraphs for top officials in the Reagan administration, the secretary of state, George Shultz, said he was prepared to resign -- and the prospect disappeared.
The tension between the legitimate claims of secrecy and the need for public accountability remains, however, and in many respects has grown worse. The main reason is the reluctance of this president and his administration to accept a broad and continuing responsibility to keep the public and the press informed on the reasons for the policies they have adopted.
President Bush's approach has been one of announcing a policy after it has been completed in his relatively closed circle of decision makers and then simply reiterating that policy in any number of prearranged settings. His news conferences and interviews are infrequent, and they rarely offer insights into the reasoning behind his conclusions.
That is why McClellan suffered both burnout and a loss of credibility in his job. Under tight orders from the top, he could do little to satisfy the curiosity -- or assuage the doubts -- of the reporters who sit frustrated in the briefing room, knowing full well that the real decision making in the White House is shielded from their view.
Unless the president comes to understand that it is in his interest -- as well as the country's -- to conduct a more open governing process, the new press secretary, Tony Snow, will find himself inevitably as much of a punching bag as McClellan became. Only George Bush can signal to the White House staff and administration that he wants a government ready and eager to explain itself to the people it is trying to lead.
When he has given that signal, there may be fewer Mary McCarthys contemplating the costs -- and burdens -- of leaking to the press.