New York Times Magazine, Sunday December 3, 2000

Sieve City

In our nation's capital, leaking is a way of life. By JANE MAYER

Elsewhere in the country, spilling secrets may be a pastime; in Washington, it's a profession. And there is no one who has done the job more zealously than Bill Gertz. Few outside the Beltway, and to be honest, few who live inside it, have heard of the middle-aged suburban family man who writes about national security issues for The Washington Times, the capital's unabashedly conservative newspaper. But within the tight circle of experts who follow state secrets, Gertz has become well known. In the past decade he has probably ferreted out and published more classified information than anyone else in America. His string of politically slanted yet often authentically embarrassing scoops about the inner workings of the Clinton administration's foreign policy have frequently driven those in power to distraction. Indeed, as Gertz acknowledges, he is widely believed to be the primary target of recent legislation, passed by both houses of Congress but vetoed by the president, that would have made it a felony to leak classified information to the press. Next year, the national security community is expected to request similar legislation from the new Congress.

First Amendment experts and newspapers, including The New York Times, were predictably alarmed about the legislation, which they said would have prevented publication of stories vital to the public interest, like the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Was Gertz worried? Not very. Even before the bill was vetoed, he said, he doubted it would be effective. In the short time between Congress's vote and Clinton's veto, he proudly said that he had "printed three classified State Department documents." As the unstoppable Bill Gertz demonstrates, it's dubious whether anything, including criminal penalties, can staunch the torrent of secrets flowing out of the capital these days. There's a simple reason for this: secrets are to Washington what money is to New York. They are the lifeblood, the preoccupation of the city.

The Capital's fondness for high-level intrigue has always been strong. But since the cold war was supplanted by a new form of domestic political warfare, secret information -- whether about national security failings or personal ones -- has increasingly become the weapon of choice in Washington's nasty ideological battles. Tidbits that were once illicit and irrelevant have now taken on genuine political significance. At the same time, military matters whose disclosure might earlier have been seen as unpatriotic, like allegations concerning lax security at U.S. weapons labs, are today just another form of ammunition used for partisan advantage.

Not so long ago, Washington's juiciest secrets could be contained within a discreet gentlemen's club. In 1940, handlers for Henry Wallace, running as Franklin Roosevelt's vice president, and Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential nominee, found a way to arrive at a tacit agreement not to publicize their candidates' most embarrassing indiscretions. Each man had a problem. Wallace had relied on Nicholas Roerich, a mystic of some dubious sort during the 1930's. And Willkie, who was married, had a mistress -- a New York newspaperwoman named Irita Van Doren. A few top people from both parties knew all this, including Roosevelt, whose presidential library contains the transcript of a conversation between the amused president and an aide in which F.D.R. refers to Willkie's "gal" and the two wonder whether Mrs. Willkie had to be paid to campaign at her husband's side. Wallace, for his part, had left a trail of letters to document his humiliating involvement with the swami. Confronted with the possibility of mutually assured damage, both campaigns kept quiet. The secrets stayed that way -- just as F.D.R.'s affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherford remained private until long after his death.

Grover Cleveland, however, proved the exception to this rule, having been dogged during the 1884 presidential campaign by accusations that he had fathered an illegitimate child. Rather than deny the story, Cleveland told party officials to tell the truth. Impressed by his candor, the public stuck by him. George W. Bush seems to have learned from Cleveland's example, trying to protect himself from stories about his early alcohol problems with a blanket statement about youth and irresponsibility. He may not have gone far enough: some post-election polls indicate that he lost votes for not disclosing a drunk-driving arrest when he was 30.

In modern Washington, the shock is not when secrets leak, it's when they're kept. At least it seems that way to Edmund Morris. As Ronald Reagan's designated biographer, Morris had extensive access to the White House. One day, he sat in on a meeting in which Donald Regan, Reagan's chief of staff, erupted in fury over a leak to the press. Fascinated at the purple-faced tantrum, Morris says, he scribbled verbatim notes while the rest of the staff sat paralyzed in horror. The next day, an almost word-for-word account of Regan's outburst appeared in The New York Times, which, Morris says, made him conclude that the senior White House staff was not just leaking, it was also taping. "Someone had to have had a pocket tape recorder to get it so exactly," he says.

"The White House was so subject to everything being immediately leaked," Morris concludes, "that its essential business was done by three people -- the president, his chief of staff and maybe the national security adviser -- talking for a few minutes while the water was running." Leaks were so endemic that real secrets, like Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, were, as Morris puts it, "literally hot air -- a few quick words exchanged while walking across the lawn." This sort of arrangement exacts an obvious price. It's hard to imagine that the best policy decisions are made hastily and with limited open debate. "In the old days," says Mike McCurry, a former press secretary to President Clinton, "there used to be a custom that a private conversation with a president stayed secret." Not anymore. "Often, when it was a really dumb leak," he says of the Clinton White House, "I could trace it back to one of the president's friends, whom he'd called to sort of sound things out." It was a friend of Clinton's, for instance, who let slip that the president believed Al Gore would have been happier as an academic and that he suspected that Gore had sought a political career only to please his parents.

Of course, that's not to say that presidents don't spill the beans intentionally. Pierre Salinger, President Kennedy's press secretary, told Bob Woodward of The Washington Post that there were only three leaks left from the Kennedy administration that he hadn't been able to trace. At least two of them, Salinger was convinced, had come from the president himself. Clinton, however, may have taken presidential leaking to a new level. As Peter Baker of The Washington Post writes in his new book "The Breach," in August 1998, four days before the president was due to testify about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, he still had not broken the news to his wife. Instead, he sent David Kendall, the couple's lawyer, to tip her off that there had been an improper sexual relationship that Clinton finally planned to acknowledge. Immediately, front-page headlines started appearing, preparing Mrs. Clinton and the rest of the country for the president's confession. Was Clinton behind the leak, directly or indirectly? McCurry says that only a handful of insiders, all of them lawyers bound to secrecy by attorney-client privilege, knew of Clinton's plan to confess, and all of them swore to him that they had not been the source. "I can't think of anyone else who knew," he concludes.

If past White Houses were porous, Clinton's may have been the first to be virtually transparent. The combination of Kenneth Starr's investigations and a particularly indiscreet White House staff left the East and West Wings as exposed as an ant farm. With the exception of a few serious national security matters, like the plan to bomb Osama bin Laden's camps in 1998, there were few secrets. "Everything becomes known sooner or later," McCurry says. "The walls talk." Indeed, they talk so much, he says, "you never knew individually who were the pipelines to the press, because there were so many." As McCurry's comment suggests, the path of a secret's spread through Washington is all but impossible to document. Leak investigations are notoriously fruitless. But Starr may have left social anthropologists a gold mine by forcing witnesses to reveal, one by one, just how they learned about Monica Lewinsky, and from whom.

In the past, powerful men could pretty much count on the discretion of their female companions. After all, not one of the "boiler room girls" who partied with Ted Kennedy the night Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in Chappaquiddick has ever spoken publicly about what she knew or saw. In contrast, Lewinsky was a virtual P.A. system. Worse for Clinton, she chose Linda Tripp as a confidante. Tripp, who immediately realized the secret's value, first considered spilling it in a book, with the help of Lucianne Goldberg, a conservative literary agent. But after Michael Isikoff of Newsweek pointed out that their publishing prospects were dim, the duo opted instead to give him the story and at the same time to use the secret to further personal and partisan agendas, leaking it to legal authorities who could walk Clinton into a perjury trap. As the new explicitness collided with the criminalized political culture, no one caught the explosive drift better than Goldberg, who crowed: "I love dish! I live for dish!"

According to Bob Woodward, a surprising number of Washington secrets -- like Clinton's womanizing -- are in plain sight long before the stories are pinned down and published. "The Daniel Ellsbergs and Deep Throats are rare," he says. Most Washington secrets take years to piece together, and most of them are visible to anyone paying close attention. "People tend to focus on little secrets, such as what was on the 18 1/2-minute gap," he says. "But the real secret of Watergate was all over the tapes. The secret was that Nixon was small and vengeful, so much so that he used a lot of the presidency to settle scores." He pauses. "We elected the wrong man as president. Now that's a shocker -- and that's a real secret."

A number of lesser, though still choice, Washington secrets have been bottled up until they could be decanted for retaliatory purposes. During the Reagan years the tell-all book went from an ignoble oddity to a kind of predictable rite of political passage -- one in which secrets were spilled in order to settle personal scores. This is how the world first learned that Nancy Reagan was relying on an astrologer to set the president's schedule. The disclosure, which appeared in Donald Regan's book, was a Washington classic, motivated, as many are, by revenge. The first lady had fired Regan, and he wanted payback. Of course, everybody wants to know Washington secrets, but no one wants to be known for telling them. As Linda Tripp learned the hard way, the line between whistle-blower and snitch is a thin one, and in truth neither category is admired much in the capital. In fact, Washington's most respected insiders are probably those who have figured out how to learn the city's best secrets without passing them on. Vernon Jordan, who may be Clinton's closest friend in town, and who is among the city's best-wired players, has agreed to write a book about his life. But Jordan is worried that it will be so far from a tell-all that it won't sell. The predicament is familiar to Robert Strauss, the lawyer-lobbyist who served as Democratic Party chairman and ambassador to Moscow. Strauss tried to divulge his life story to a ghostwriter, but found he simply couldn't do it. After wrestling with it for a year, he concluded: "The mystique of people thinking I have secrets almost makes it worthwhile keeping the one or two that I've got left. You see," he says with a chuckle, "it helps my social standing."

Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker