By Peter Baker
Sunday, April 8, 2007
Shortly before leaving Moscow after four years covering Russia, I was granted a rare audience by a top Kremlin official. As we talked about Vladimir Putin and his relationship with President Bush, the Kremlin official compared the Bush team to the Bolsheviks and laughed at how secretive their White House appeared. "They've adopted some of our techniques with the press," he said.
For most of the past six years, journalists covering the White House have indeed been forced to master the art of Kremlinology. The famously disciplined and leak-averse Bush team succeeded at hermetically sealing the building, keeping behind-the-scenes machinations, well, behind the scenes. Deprived of any genuine information about how the institution operated, reporters were left to extrapolate what was really going on based on who was standing where at a Rose Garden photo op.
But something surprising has been happening in the past few months. The hermetic seal is showing cracks, and now the most disciplined administration in modern times has begun to see its internal workings seep into public view. Bush's shake-up of his Iraq team appeared in the newspapers before he was ready to announce it. His fight with the Joint Chiefs of Staff over plans to send more troops to Iraq played out on the front page for weeks. Secret memos by his national security adviser and his old defense secretary showed up in print. And unnamed officials put out word that Bush's new defense secretary tried unsuccessfully to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"You always have more leaks when you have a combination of a late term and big controversy," observed Marlin Fitzwater, the only person to serve as press secretary to two presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. "Between the war and the last two years in office, I think it's pretty normal to have this kind of increase in leaked material. You've got to remember that the primary motivation for most leaks is that people want to influence the policy or the president when they're not otherwise able to do so. At the end of a term and in the middle of a controversy is when you can do that."
None of this means that the White House is suddenly leaking like a sieve. This is still not the most transparent institution; extracting information can be maddening at times. Just two months ago, as the Super Bowl neared, the White House refused to reveal what kind of television the president would watch it on. And in fact, many disclosures that have come out lately seem to have originated from other agencies in the administration. But it signals that the White House is no longer able to enforce its will on all corners of government quite as efficiently as it once seemed to do.
"Discipline is enforced by fear, and there's not a lot of people right now afraid of the president, politically afraid," said Joe Lockhart, who was press secretary for President Bill Clinton. "The Joint Chiefs, the Republican leadership, former aides are not worried about political retribution from the White House. They're a paper tiger."
Indeed, the toughest criticism of the Bush White House these days seems to emanate from those who were once on the inside and are no longer reluctant to speak out. Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, told the New York Times this month that he is "so disappointed in things" that he has concluded that Sen. John F. Kerry was right about Iraq. John R. Bolton left his post as Bush's ambassador to the United Nations and within weeks complained that the administration was not being tough enough on Iran and North Korea. Kenneth Adelman, a former confidant of Vice President Cheney and adviser to then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, now denounces his erstwhile friends for running the worst administration in modern times.
Some of what is happening now was commonplace in past administrations. During Clinton's tenure -- and, I'm told, during those of his predecessors -- it was possible within limits to gain insight into how the White House worked. Reporters who had a question about economic policy could call the president's economic adviser, those writing on health care could call his domestic policy adviser, those with legal queries could call the counsel's office. None of those officials in the Bush White House returns reporters' calls.
In the past, it usually became known who was being considered for the Supreme Court or top administration posts long before any announcements were made. Options for welfare policy and diplomatic initiatives were effectively vetted in the media before landing on the president's desk. At times, that put Clinton's disarray on public display, but on many other occasions, it helped air dissent and further legitimize debate.
"Within reason, it's healthy for the system," Lockhart said. "You can't govern through the newspapers. But you also can't govern with six people in the room. You have to strike a balance." In the first two years of Clinton's presidency, "there was too much public argument," he added. "But by the end of the administration, the balance was pretty good."
Bush didn't think so, and he came into office determined to do things differently. Leaks, in his view, were a sign of a disorderly White House. Nothing should get out that was not supposed to get out. And his ability to make that stick through so many years suggested an unusual solidarity among his team. Bush remembered people in his father's White House coming to him as the president's son to complain that they had no access to the Oval Office. The son vowed not to repeat that management pattern and believed that by keeping an open door, there would be less incentive for aides to go to the media to be heard.
"You've got two polar extremes there," said Trent Duffy, a former Bush spokesman, comparing his White House with the previous one. "The main reason the Bush White House was able to maintain such a level of discipline was largely because they and the vice president's office were really in sync and there wasn't a lot of freelancing, versus the Clinton White House, which was the opposite."
Still, as Duffy noted, the signature disagreement of Bush's first term did eventually become public -- the struggle over the Iraq war between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on one side and Cheney and Rumsfeld on the other. The losing side in that struggle, Powell's State Department, was more likely to leak, a pattern that irritated Bush and the West Wing.
Every White House engages in strategic leaks that are planned and authorized at the top -- information placed without fingerprints to advance a particular goal or undercut a rival. Some aides in the Clinton White House kept a list of whose turn it was to receive a leak of an initiative that the president was soon to announce -- if it's Tuesday, it must be USA Today. Those sorts of meaningless 24-hour scoops were designed to maximize coverage of something the White House wanted covered on the theory that the recipient media organization would play up its "exclusive" and others would chase it.
The other kind of authorized leak can blow up on a White House, as the Bush team discovered when an attempt to discredit former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, a critic of the Iraq war, triggered a special counsel investigation that ultimately led to the indictment and conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, for perjury and obstruction of justice.
But it is the unauthorized leak that every president rails against and, in the end, finds impossible to stop. Now Bush sees it happening more often. In the past few weeks, for example, The Washington Post reported on internal e-mails sent by White House aide Elliott Abrams blasting the president's nuclear agreement with North Korea. And the New York Times detailed an effort by Rumsfeld's replacement, Robert M. Gates, to shut down Guantanamo Bay, a proposal blocked by Cheney and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.
Those are classic Washington stories, where debates on important issues of unquestionable public interest are aired in the open, something that might not have happened all that long ago. Duffy said that may stem from a somewhat more open environment fostered in the past year by White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and press secretary Tony Snow, who are not wedded to rote talking points.
Rather than shun the media, Snow has made a point of putting the president and top aides out for more interviews as well as off-the-record meetings with journalists. "It's obvious the White House is doing things they didn't do in the first term," Duffy said. "Tony has a totally different approach."
Snow also hasn't sweated garden-variety leaks the way others used to. After Bush recently held an unpublicized meeting with a Russian general accused of war crimes in Chechnya, a government official leaked it to Human Rights Watch, which tipped off The Post. The resulting publicity prompted the White House to disavow knowing about the general's past and to swear off any future contacts.
The Russians were annoyed. No doubt they wished the old Kremlin techniques were still in effect.
Peter Baker is a Washington Post White House correspondent.