In a series of TV appearances and tweets last week, Anthony Scaramucci ramped up this administration’s war on leaks.
“I’m going to fire everybody,” Scaramucci told reporters on Tuesday. “You’re going to stop leaking or you’re going to be fired.” But it was Scaramucci that ended up leaving the White House after a foul-mouthed rant to the New Yorker in which he raged about his colleague Reince Priebus and accused chief strategist Steve Bannon of anatomical acrobatics. Now, with retired general John Kelly replacing Priebus as chief of staff, the White House suddenly has turned down the heat about the leaks that the Mooch railed against so vehemently during his record-short tenure.
Of course, this latest round of leak-freaking was not about classified material, designated as harmful to U.S. national security if released. Laws govern the disclosure of such information. Releasing classified content outside of approved channels can inflict serious damage on everything from military readiness to intelligence collection to diplomatic efforts.
Nothing so serious provoked Scaramucci’s anti-leak outbursts. Instead, the recent outrage responded to reports about potential staff firings, who was dining with the president and the publication of Scaramucci’s financial disclosure form, a public document that was duly released by the Export-Import bank.
Unauthorized disclosures about something—whether sensitive national security information, palace intrigue, or something in between—have bedeviled every presidency. The politically and personally oriented leaks that drive presidents and their staffs to madness the most are extraordinarily difficult to stop, and efforts to quell them rarely succeed.
Even the Founding Fathers grew frustrated by leaks from even the supposedly private meetings of the Constitutional Convention. In the centuries since, back-room political deals and socially awkward comments about potential or actual rivals—more than classified information—have prompted leaks in pamphlets, newspapers and broadcast media. Tempers flare about them, but then officials move on to other business.
In the modern era, the leaks that plagued Richard Nixon’s time in office spurred him to vent expletives to his chief of staff—and set up the infamous White House “plumbers” unit to plug them—and others who happened to be in the line of fire. Nixon in 1971 famously railed against Daniel Ellsberg’s delivery of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. Less well remembered today is that the revelations therein cast a poor light less on Nixon’s presidency than on the administrations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, whose misleading claims about the Vietnam war were laid bare by Ellsberg’s leak.
Fear of looking weak—more than concern for actual damage to national security—appears to have ignited Nixon’s effort to make an example of Ellsberg, whom he called a “son of a bitch.” But the leaks continued, feeding the spiral of the Watergate scandal that, ultimately, drove Nixon to resign the presidency in August 1974.
George Shultz recalls that soon after taking office as Ronald Reagan’s second secretary of state in 1982, he started seeing in print his own comments from high-level policy meetings—including sessions of the National Security Council. At a subsequent NSC meeting, Shultz declared, “I’m never speaking in one of these meetings again because everything I say ends up in the newspapers.” For the next two or three NSC discussions, he simply crossed his arms and sat silently as others debated key points—but then went back to business as usual.
Those were genuinely worrisome leaks. Unlike Scaramucci’s diatribe last week, the leakers had been passing on information about the secretary of state’s foreign policy positions—not about his dinner company or his feelings toward members of his staff. But even Shultz, the victim of many an unkind leak, rejected extreme measures to stop them. In 1985, fed up with additional unauthorized disclosures, Reagan agreed to a plan to administer polygraph tests to thousands of government employees and contractors—including Cabinet officers. Shultz found out about it while traveling overseas. Upon his return to the U.S., he told the press, “The minute in this government I am told that I’m not trusted is the day that I leave.” That got Reagan’s attention. As Shultz told me, “There was hell to pay, and the president rescinded the order.” And the leaks continued.
So what has worked? Some moves in the late 1980s and 1990s seemed to mitigate leaks.
CIA Deputy Director Bob Gates found an old-fashioned but effective method to get sensitive messages to Shultz securely: He often gave notes to the Agency officer who delivered the President’s Daily Brief to the secretary of state. Gates knew that the content of his notes wouldn’t leak because no other staffers, on either side of the Potomac River, would see them.
And George H.W. Bush reduced leaks when he acceded to the presidency by replacing Reagan’s steady series of meetings, full of both senior officials at the tables and staffers taking notes at the backbenches, with small-circle consultations. Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense, recalls the style of the elder Bush: “Formal meetings of the National Security Council were fairly rare.… it was much more likely to be the gang of eight or even a smaller group. He’d be there, he’d preside. He was much more comfortable in that kind of a situation and I think we were too.”
Let’s be clear: Disclosures that harm national security are wrong. Senior administration officials, members of Congress and their staffs and thousands of federal bureaucrats seem to agree on that (if little else). Yet a few of them do it anyway, likely for some perceived short-term advantage, such as to outmaneuver or settle scores with an internal rival. Sometimes they do it out of pure vanity, or spite. Leaking genuine secrets, though, often harms those the leaker is trying to help and only makes the tough jobs of intelligence collection, diplomacy and national security decision-making even harder.
But leaders shouldn’t fool themselves. Leaks about jockeying within an administration, its policy debates or who’s dining together—while annoying—have long been part of our political culture. Cracking down rarely works, because we live in an open society with a vibrant press. Bothersome gossip just comes with the job.