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Why do people leak information to the press?

Carl Bernstein

There is this value judgment that Libby wasn't worth protecting because he was just trying to spin public opinion, ... or that a source has to be somehow someone of pure motive. But Mark Felt['s] wasn't a pure motive.

To this day, I don't know all of Mark Felt's motives. There's no way to know the motives of another person totally, even a person that you know very well. Our responsibility is to the principle, and that principle is that if we want to know the facts and come up with a truthful picture of something, it will more often than not require that we are able to tell people with information that we will not identify them under any circumstances.

If it turns out that those people are certifiable bad guys, and yet they are telling us what we believe and what they believe to be truthful, ... we don't get to make the decision of whether to protect a source based on the ideology or party of a person. We make this decision based uniformly on our need for information so that we can put together a truthful picture. ...

Mark Fainaru-Wada

Reporter, San Francisco Chronicle

Mark Fainaru-Wada

I know you're protecting a source, sources around this grand jury situation. But shouldn't we be concerned about your source's motive?

... I'm not going to talk about motives of anybody who's provided us information, but I think that that's something we always think about, we always consider. In this case, remember, ... the grand jury information is the words of the actual athletes testifying about themselves and what they used. For our money, the story was always about that. ... There's a difference between the motive of somebody who you're quoting anonymously and the motive of someone who's providing you with documentary evidence. If that documentary evidence stands alone on its own, then you can report on that. ...

Why would I want to make this grand jury testimony public? It's going to destroy the careers or create difficulties of the careers of some very well-known athletes. Don't you think the public needs to know the motive of who would do that?

... One of the things we've said throughout is ... these folks are whistleblowers in the true sense, I think. They're whistleblowers in that the public is being shielded from information that is relevant to what they're paying for, essentially.

Sports are big business whether people want to accept it or not; the athletes are role models whether they want to accept it or not. If there's a reality that these athletes feel that they need to be using performance-enhancing drugs to succeed and are using performance-enhancing drugs to succeed, that message is going to trickle down. There's no question. ... The reality is these drugs are vastly more dangerous for young teenage boys in particular than they are for you or me. ...

No, I don't think the public necessarily needs to know the motive. The relevance of this information is clear. We made a decision based on that, and we would make the same decision we made again. ...

James Goodale

First Amendment attorney

James Goodale

... There are parts of classified information that shouldn't be leaked; that are deep, dark secrets of the government, all right? Then there's a level way below that which should never be classified in the first place. That information does not belong to the government; it belongs to the people. The government has no right to take information that we need to know so we can function as a public and say, "It's mine; it's ours."

Eric Lichtblau

Reporter, The New York Times

Eric Lichtblau

But that's a complaint that I've heard from others: Your sources are committing treason. ... They can go to the Intelligence Committee in the House or the Senate, or for that matter anyone who's in Congress, and tell them what's wrong. ...

Well, first of all, there are whistleblowers who will tell you that they have done just that ... and have found that they've been retaliated against or could not find a venue, even in Congress. So whether or not that process works is debatable. There are also whistleblower protections for going to the media -- not as strong as we would like at times, but there are protections in place for that. ...

The concerns that we saw recently from Hoekstra are relatively new. We haven't been in that situation before, where we have the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee going to the president to say, "I heard from a whistleblower that there are classified programs that you're not telling us about, and you may be in violation of the law." That's a new phenomenon.

These leaks or these whistleblowers, are they the result of the administration's unusual policy around secrecy and trying to reassert the power of the presidency?

It's tough to get into the motives and aspirations of all whistleblowers, but I think that it is part of what we're seeing, the idea that a lot of these operations have been conducted in such secrecy, and people who have raised questions about some of these operations feel as if they have been effectively silenced or retaliated against. ...

John McLaughlin

Former deputy director, CIA

John McLaughlin

... People inside the government became leakers, it appears, because they have no place to vent their concerns internally, despite the alternatives that you say existed institutionally -- inspectors general and so forth. That seems to be the reality. You wouldn't have these leaks unless that was true.

Well, I don't know that that's the case. I guess my wish is that there had been a way for the U.S. government executive branch and congressional branch to sit down and have this discussion within channels in order to figure out whether we were doing everything as we should be doing it.

Part of the problem here is that I think congressional oversight does not work as well as it should. It's not that Congress was ignoring these programs or [was] complacent about them; it's that the oversight mechanism kicks in mainly when there's a problem.

For example, on the recent leak of a National Intelligence Estimate [NIE], I bet most people on the Hill hadn't read it until it leaked. The way it should work is that there should be more no-fault discussions between the congressional oversight committees and the intelligence community. ...

I'm not claiming that works well. I'm just saying there is a system here which, if properly managed, could stand back and take a reasonable five-year view at how we're doing this. I don't know that that worked or didn't work. I don't accept the judgment that there's no place to go. I really don't. There are places to go within the system, including, and I would start with, Congress. ...

Judith Miller

Freelance reporter

Judith Miller

Look, sources aren't saints, and we shouldn't expect them to be. People leak for all kinds of reasons. ... My job was to collect as much information as I could in order to discover where the truth lay, and that means getting information from all kinds of people. In Washington, officials discuss information like this every day. They spin it. They get their side of the story out. Reporters have to hear all of that in order to evaluate the information they have.

Another point is that when you sit down to interview a source, say, if I'm interviewing you, I don't know what you're going to tell me. I don't know whether or not it's truthful or accurate. I don't even know why you may be telling me this, but I know that it's important that I hear it if I'm trying to write a story that's balanced and that's fair.

So we can't begin to say I'm only going to issue pledges of confidentiality when politically I agree with the source, or I think the source isn't politically motivated. Almost all leaks of information are politically motivated.

Let me re-enact this in some way, generically. So I'm a very powerful official in the United States government and I say, "Let's have lunch, but it's going to be on background."

Happens every day in Washington, yes.

But then I start to unload on you information that's negative information about someone in Washington.

That happens every day. Just about every day. It's the reporter's obligation to sift through that information and find out whether or not there's a legitimate story there.

But if the source is obviously after some kind of political advantage -- this isn't to expose something to the American public, to give them some information that they can't get any other way; ... we're talking about political hardball basically -- you still have to honor that arrangement?

Absolutely, or people won't come forth to talk to you. You have to honor your pledge of confidentiality. …

But you're saying there's no gradations? There's no difference between your confidentiality pledge to a source who's got some ulterior motive versus someone who's taking risks to present information to the public?

People are always taking risks when they're discussing classified information with reporters. Mark Felt, who was Deep Throat, were his motives entirely pure? Was he angry about the administration policy, the Nixon administration?

My job is to evaluate motive when I'm actually writing a story. When I'm collecting information, I want to talk to as many different people as I can and hear as many different viewpoints as I can. That's tricky when the information you're dealing with is classified. But I can't begin to draw a boundary around information and sources based on their political views or whether or not I like what I'm hearing. ...

Dana Priest

Reporter, The Washington Post

Dana Priest

Are your sources motivated, do you think, by concern for national security or jealousy? ...

It's impossible to know all the motives of the given source. If you spend time with them, you can get some of that. ... It could be frustration; it could be the sense that they're doing something wrong the public should know about.

I think in the CIA case, there was also a deep concern about the agency's reputation and how it would weather in the long run this role that it had as the jailer around the world. ... There were efforts made to try to get the White House to think about this long term that came to naught, so I think that was part of the motivation.

James Risen

Reporter, The New York Times

James Risen

Anyone who tries to tell the truth and to get the story out can get in trouble if they're identified, and yet there is a public need to get those stories out. I think that is where the public misunderstands the role of anonymous sources. ... There's a sense that, oh, these are made-up people or that the reporter is fabricating or that these are people with an ax to grind, when in fact it's quite the opposite: It's people who are really determined patriots, I believe, to get the truth out with reporters who they trust, in a way that they believe will help the country. ...

That may be a leap of faith, but in this environment, where there is so much of a culture of secrecy in Washington today, I think as a reader, you have to take that leap. And the only way over time to determine that this source, meaning me, is credible is if the stories hold up. You have to determine what the track record of the reporter is. ...

... Doesn't it allow somebody to, if you will, spin you, to manipulate you?

... Every time you do a story, you're in danger of being spun, or you are spun. A lot of times, as a reporter, you know you're getting spun. Every day you go to the White House press briefing, you're getting spun. Every story contains some spin. ...

The people and the sources of information that Eric Lichtblau and I got for our story, were people who in some cases were tortured by their knowledge of this information. They felt compelled to tell this information, to make the public aware of it because they believed that it was either unconstitutional or illegal, and I think that they were classic whistle-blowers.

... There are other ways ... for that person to get that information out. ... But talking to someone who's unauthorized is a crime and should not happen. It damages the national security of the United States.

That's my point. ... If you're able to put a classification stamp on anything, ... [and that] makes it illegal to tell the public that the government is potentially conducting illegal operations, then you're into the theater of the absurd. ...

But they say -- and apparently some members of Congress agree -- that they were briefed, and this was a very valuable program.

Yeah, I know what their arguments are. But I also think that there was a First Amendment in the Bill of Rights long before there was a CIA or an NSA, before there was classification. No matter what they say, there was no real alternative that people within the government who had concerns about this program could get that aired, because this was so highly compartmented.

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posted feb. 13, 2007; last updated feb. 27, 2007

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