The White House's denunciation of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr for allegedly leaking grand jury material puts the press in an uncomfortable, if not exactly novel, position. The dual roles of newspapers to report the news and, in their opinion pages, to express their opinions on public issues do not normally conflict. But leaks present a perennial conflict.
The issue of leaks pits an essential and legitimate tool of news-gathering against society's interest in having a government capable of keeping the details of highly sensitive investigations and certain national security information quiet. Can a newspaper credibly deplore these leaks on one page while printing them on another?
While some journalists try, it is hard to argue that a culture of leaks does not often have serious consequences both for the functioning of government and for individual citizens. Simple fairness requires that law enforcement investigations and grand jury evidence be kept quiet while probes are pending. Investigators, after all, sift through a lot of derogatory information about innocent people before getting to the bad guys, and this material is protected so as not to smear these bystanders and witnesses.
The government also has a very real interest in keeping genuine national security information classified and shielding certain agency decisions from premature publicity. But it is also true that disclosures of official misconduct are an important check on overweening government power and hidden corruption. It's certainly true as well that our government keeps too many secrets. And, of course, leaks are regularly used as an arm of policy by government officials who just as regularly denounce them in other contexts.
It is not, of course, the press's job to protect government's secrets. A newspaper's function is to present information, and leaks are central to that mission. Many of the news stories that are most essential to a free society are likely to be based on leaks, and few would suggest the press should generally stay away from them. In some instances -- such as, for example, hostage situations or certain national security emergencies -- news organizations will balance society's other interests against the press's duty to inform, but they generally do so at their own discretion, reserving their right to have acted differently.
Without unauthorized disclosures, the press (and the public) would be dependent on government's self-presentation -- which is to say its propaganda. Asking journalists to denounce leaks because of their deleterious effects on the functioning of government is as hopeless as asking an airline to denounce jet fuel because of its impact on the environment.
This conflict is absolute for news writers. But for those of us in the editorial writing end of the business to object, from time to time, to a particularly damaging breach of privacy or security rules by a government leaker is a different matter. It is impossible, to be sure, to square the circle entirely. But as long as the hypocrisy is entirely out in the open, there is no reason for commentators to recuse themselves from the subject either.
In our capacity as news-gatherers, we should be aggressive about soliciting leaks and coaxing officials to provide them. We should feel free to print stories about sealed court documents. And we should, of course, protect our sources and offer no cooperation to investigations designed to uncover them. In our capacity as commentators, however, we should not draw a false equivalence between the press's interest and the public interest. We do not impair our reporting by admitting that a government that cannot shut up is less good for society at large than it is good for us. And we can acknowledge that the damage done by some leaks is greater than the value of the stories the leaks yield. Just ask Richard Jewell.
I suspect that most of the so-called leaks in the Lewinsky matter are not really prohibited disclosures of grand jury information at all. Witnesses, White House lawyers and others are all permitted to disclose what they know about the grand jury's proceedings, and there have been few, if any, pieces of grand jury information that could have come only from investigators or prosecutors.
But if this faith proves naive and someone associated with Mr. Starr really is blanketing the city with protected information, that person is running his mouth in violation of rules that exist for good reasons. Such an investigator's loose lips might make him a valuable source, but they also make him an investigator with inadequate respect for his ethical and legal responsibilities. The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.