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Calling Truce in the 'Leak Wars'

POLITICO, in its tireless quest to drain the word “war” of meaning, is gleefully covering what it calls “the leak wars”—the burgeoning dispute between the White House and Republicans over a recent spate of national security scoops in the New York Times. After revelations in the Times about President Obama’s so-called “Kill List” and the use of cyber attacks against Iran’s nuclear program, Republicans are accusing the White House of leaking important national security secrets to the paper of record just to make the president look tough. This morning President Obama called the idea that the White House was purposefully leaking information “offensive.” For his part, Dean Baquet, managing editor of the Times, says he “can’t believe anybody who says these are leaks.” As he told POLITICO: “Read those stories. They are so clearly the product of tons and tons of reporting.”

This is exactly the kind of story that POLITICO lives for (and, to some extent, creates): A political-ish combat story, light on policy details, and infused with a heavy amount of media criticism. Fight!

But let me suggest that the contours of this particular debate are a little fuzzy. First of all, a note to Republicans: If you’re going to complain about important national security secrets becoming public, you’re implicitly admitting that you believe the revelations to be true. So here’s some free advice: Stop saying, as Sen. Lindsey Graham did recently, that the releases are calculated to “paint the president as a strong leader.” If they’re true, they’re not painting anything: He is a strong leader, full stop.

And as for the media angle, I have to say that Baquet is muddying the waters a bit. Contrary to his suggestion, there’s no bright line that separates “leaks” from “reporting.” The process of acquiring information, particularly about sensitive subjects, is complex. Sometimes people really do volunteer information that they shouldn’t. (Every reporter knows the thrill that comes from hearing someone say, “I really shouldn’t tell you this, but…”—even if the information that follows is often uninteresting or self-serving.) But sometimes people slip up: They accidentally reveal something secret, either by saying it outright or by revealing some hint or connection that leads a smart reporter to search deeper. Occasionally, damning details are sitting in plain view for anyone sharp enough to connect the dots, or diligent enough to comb through dull records and files (I.F. Stone was a master of the latter technique).

And exceptionally talented reporters often combine these techniques: Poring through public records and connecting disparate bits of information leads to a well-conducted interview with an official who inadvertently confirms a reporter’s suspicion, or who accidentally (or unknowingly) hints at a classified element in the story. Armed with this new information, the reporter refocuses her inquiry, makes new discoveries, and approaches a high-ranking official with her discovery. At that point, officials have to make a choice: Do they deny everything and see if the reporter goes forward with the story? Do they beg for a delay before the secrets are published? Or do they try to add more detail and context—perhaps in an attempt to change the story’s emphasis, or lead the reporter down a different track, or make the final report as favorable as possible to American interests? And does that count as a “leak”?

The point is, I don’t know. And I imagine most reporters would be similarly reluctant to draw that bright line. Even POLITICO has acknowledged that the distinction isn’t clear. One recent article noted that “Parties on all sides are arguing as if there’s a bright-line test for national security secrets […] [but] the truth is that in many instances there are shades of gray and judgment calls.” Quite right. But judgment calls and shades of gray? That sounds rather complicated—and in politics, complexity doesn’t make for a very exciting war.