A Town Running Hot and Cold

The unauthorized release of a memo by national security adviser Stephen Hadley, left, may have affected Bush's plans to meet with Iraq's prime minister.
The unauthorized release of a memo by national security adviser Stephen Hadley, left, may have affected Bush's plans to meet with Iraq's prime minister. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 11, 2006

Washington is awash in leaks these days, giving us a rare glimpse of what really goes on behind the carefully manicured landscape of official statements.

Goodness gracious, when even Donald Rumsfeld is saying privately that the Iraq war strategy "is not working well enough or fast enough" -- and someone furnishes his memo to the New York Times -- it is clear that the administration's once-legendary discipline has broken down.

What is also clear is that the private doubts of top officials are closer to the media's dark portrait of the war than to the "absolutely, we're winning" rhetoric of President Bush. That is especially noteworthy in light of all the criticism that administration officials have heaped on correspondents in Iraq for focusing too heavily on violence and ignoring signs of progress.

The reigning assumption of reporters -- that they're not always getting the full story from government officials -- seemed vindicated by twin leaks to the Times, involving the Rumsfeld memo and a classified assessment by national security adviser Stephen Hadley that was critical of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The disclosures also underscored how a single Deep Throat, by slipping someone a piece of paper, can transform coverage of even the most important events. From the Pentagon Papers to the outing of Valerie Plame, this has been a well-trafficked route.

A similar phenomenon was at work with the Baker-Hamilton commission, where multiple sources dribbled out most of the panel's main recommendations on Iraq well before the findings were made public last Wednesday. In fact, the group headed by former secretary of state James Baker was such a sieve that by the time the members formally unveiled their report, it seemed like old news. An entire debate took place before any member of the group had made an on-the-record utterance.

The Hadley memo -- devastatingly leaked as Bush was about to meet with Maliki in Jordan -- said that "the reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action.'' A senior administration official told reporters that the memo was merely about "building better capabilities with the Maliki government."

Bush and Vice President Cheney have excoriated news organizations, especially the Times, for publishing national security secrets, but not this time. "I guess it's easier to rally the faithful with a cry of 'national security' than with a complaint that 'this is really embarrassing,' " Times Editor Bill Keller told the New York Observer.

But White House counselor Dan Bartlett says officials are indeed upset: "I haven't seen a more egregious leak in my time in government, timed to influence a very important meeting with a head of state."

David Greenberg, a professor of journalism and history at Rutgers University, says that "you see this kind of breakdown in an administration's unitary facade when there's a lot more internal dissension. As a rule, leaking occurs when people in an administration feel there's some kind of advantage to be gained in mobilizing public pressure, and journalistic pressure, against someone else on the inside."

The Rumsfeld memo, dated the day before the midterm elections, laid out a series of options on Iraq, including "withdraw U.S. forces from vulnerable positions" and move them to an "assistance" role, based in Kuwait and some parts of Iraq.

When asked by NBC's David Gregory why the president wasn't "saying publicly what top members of this administration who were running the war were saying privately," press secretary Tony Snow said Bush had made clear that "things are not getting well enough fast enough."

Snow also accused Gregory of being "partisan" last week after a question in which the correspondent merely summarized the recommendations of the Baker group and quoted co-chairman Lee Hamilton. Snow was arguing that the report was not a rejection of the president's Iraq policy, as it was depicted by nearly all news organizations.

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