National Commentary

Helen Thomas: Hail To The Leakers

WASHINGTON — Hail to the leakers and whistle blowers. Bring ’em on.

How else would we know that national security adviser Stephen Hadley had written a memo — leaked on Nov. 29 — that he believed that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wasn’t up to the job and couldn’t control the violence in Iraq.

The timing of the leak was fortuitous — it came a couple of days before President Bush was to meet with al-Maliki in Amman, Jordan.

The Iraqi leader was miffed, to put it mildly, and he rebuffed Bush by canceling their first meeting. But the two got together the next day and buried the hatchet — somewhat. Bush is learning belatedly that diplomacy, especially in the Middle East, is a high-wire act.

If it hadn’t been leaked, how would we have known that outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had written a memo calling for a "major adjustment" in U.S. policy in Iraq. In the memo, Rumsfeld also indicated that current strategy was not working.

Both leaks may have been "authorized leaks." The leaked Hadley memo certainly sent a strong message to al-Maliki that he should get his act together. The leaked Rumsfeld memo looked like the secretary got it out so that history would judge him as a flexible war leader, not someone stubbornly following his whims.

White House press secretary Tony Snow insisted there was a "lot of consternation" over the leaks, though I notice that the White House didn’t ask the Justice Department to hunt down the leakers.

The likelihood that both memos were authorized leaks is bolstered by the fact that the Bush White House is known for its secrecy, with the top staff walking in lockstep and staying on script. The Bush White House has even reclassified some documents that had been in the public domain.

Then there are unauthorized leaks that have driven the Bush administration crazy. For example, if it had not been for leaks, we would not know that detainees — who have not been convicted in the "war on terror" — have been shipped to secret prisons in countries notorious for torturing prisoners during interrogation.

Another leak revealed that Bush had authorized the wiretapping of Americans without a court warrant, a gross violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Most administrations have found that attempts to track down leakers are useless. By then, the cat is out of the bag — and a big hub-bub about finding the leaker only serves to draw more attention to the leaked information.

The Nixon White House learned the hard way by creating a special unit, called the "plumbers" to track down leakers. The move boomeranged and it became part of the Watergate scandal.

President Lyndon B. Johnson would become apoplectic over leaks and was known to cancel a high-level personnel appointment because the news broke before he could announce it.

President John F. Kennedy was equally irate over leaks, especially concerning his family. He once ordered press secretary Pierre Salinger to find a leaker. After a lot of checking, Salinger told Kennedy that he, the president, was the leaker. Kennedy was friendly with several newsmen dating back to his days in Congress and in chatting with some of them he had dropped the news.

President Ronald Reagan operated above the crowd and usually kept his cool. But one day he complained that he was "up to my keister in leaks," and that expostulation made more news than the leak.

Now we are waiting for leaks about the president’s next move in dealing with the crisis in Iraq. He has put off an announcement until January about his view of the "path forward" following his consultations with a variety of sources and the Iraq Study Group’s 79 recommendations about what to do.

Only one thing is certain: Between now and early next month, there will be leaks from the Bush White House — and some of them may even be true.

© 2006 Hearst Newspapers