It is arguable that without leaks the U.S. government could not function. Trial balloons could not be floated, political scores could not be settled, wrongs would go unexposed, policy could not be made.
It is against the law to reveal government secrets that might harm national security, but as a practical matter, journalists (protected by the First Amendment) are very rarely pressed to reveal their sources. Leak investigations are launched about every other week in Washington, but only occasionally is the leaker caught, and it has been two decades since anyone was criminally punished.
It’s not likely that anyone will go to jail for outing Valerie Plame Wilson as an undercover spy for the Central Intelligence Agency. But the leak—from unnamed “senior administration officials,” allegedly in retribution for her husband’s accusing the Bushies of “twisting” intelligence—has stirred a scandal that casts light on a dark side of the Bush administration.
All presidents deplore leaks in the strongest terms, and then wink at (or, in some cases, personally authorize) leaks that serve their purposes. No one is accusing George W. Bush of reincarnating Richard Nixon. Still, this administration has been particularly secretive and manipulative, at once condemning and seeking to stop “unauthorized disclosures” while putting out its own selective version of the truth.
The media gleefully report on the finger-pointing, demands for a special prosecutor and the huffy denials of top administration officials. Many career bureaucrats and members of the press have chafed at the sometimes lordly attitude of Bush and his war cabinet, but quailed in the face of popular demand for strong leadership after 9/11. As Bush has begun to sink in the polls, however, his critics have become emboldened.
The case of Valerie Plame Wilson is being offered up as one of those morality tales that have a broader meaning. Mrs. Wilson’s scandalous unmasking may be to the Bush administration what the $640 toilet seat was to the Reagan-era defense buildup in the 1980s: an easy-to-grasp symbol of arrogance and excess.