Political Leaks: An American Tradition

ByABC News via via logo

April 23, 2006 — -- The firing this week of a veteran CIA analyst for disclosing confidential information is just the latest reminder that leaking government secrets can be a dangerous and risky game.

After all, leaking has been around as long as the nation itself.

In 1794, George Washington was outraged when Alexander Hamilton released details of a treaty negotiation.

Benjamin Franklin lost his job as postmaster after he leaked private letters to reveal political leanings of colonial leaders -- letters that helped fan the flames of the Revolution.

"Leaks have been around since Jefferson was complaining about newspapers and what they were doing to him," said Howard Kurtz, media critic for The Washington Post. "The difference now is you have so many more media outlets and a 24-hour digital world [so] that the leak can instantly go around the globe. You don't have to wait for the newspaper to be delivered on horseback."

Not that there was any shortage of horseback riding leakers in the old days. In fact, you might say it was the "midnight ride" of Paul Revere and his unauthorized disclosure of British troop movements back in 1775 that led to the birth of our nation.

Since then, our leaders have relied on leaks as an essential political tool, with everyone from Honest Abe Lincoln to FDR, Dwight Eisenhower and JFK.

Perhaps the greatest purveyor -- and victim -- of leaks in presidential history was Richard Nixon. Nixon-era leaks included the Pentagon Papers and revelations on Watergate.

Two years after The New York Times caught wind of secret bombing raids in Cambodia, a Defense Department employee began slipping photocopies of the Pentagon Papers to reporters.

In an attempt to plug the leaks, Nixon's men created a secret unit known as "The Plumbers," who eventually broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters. When those details were revealed to the Washington Post, a presidency came crashing down.

"The most celebrated leaker in modern history is undoubtedly Deep Throat, who met with Bob Woodward in a parking garage and spilled the secrets of Watergate," Kurtz said. "A lot of people thought that that was a good leak in the sense that it was blowing the whistle in the Nixon administration. A lot of the national security leaks these days are much more controversial about whether or not somebody ought to be putting out classified information."

It wasn't exactly a national security secret, but the revelation of Bill Clinton's dalliances with an intern created a series of headaches for a different White House.

Strategic Leaking

The old Watergate pattern of leaks, counter-leaks and denials just won't go away in politics … or pretty much anywhere else. Leaks are even driving the way we cover celebrity births and Hollywood marriages.

Back in Washington, the Bush White House is having problems with leaking, just like its predecessors. But as dangerous as leaking is, a world without leaks might just pose some dangers of its own.

"Without some leaks on some issues from some well-placed sources, a lot of important stories would never get out," Kurtz said.

ABC News' Bill Weir reported this story for "Good Morning America Weekend Edition" and "World News Tonight."

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