Federal Employees News Digest

Insight by Mike Causey: Anatomy of a leak

So what is the leak capital of the world? For show-biz gossip, that would be Los Angeles, for sure.

For political/national security leaks, it would have to be Washington, D.C., the capital of your nation and most likely the headquarters of the department, agency, bureau or service where you work. If D.C. isn’t No. 1, it is a close second to London, which possesses an equally gossip-loving media, and a press corps that will stop at nothing to get a sensational story. But for the sake of argument, let’s say it is D.C., not London, and proceed from there.

Political leaks have been around since John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had their famous and long-lived feud. Andrew Jackson got drenched in leaks. Most presidents have suffered from, or benefited from, leaks during their time in office. President Johnson (Lyndon, not Andrew) was infamous for his method of dealing with leaks. If the media reported a pending action or political appointment, he would often cancel the action—rather than do or appoint whatever or whomever the leak had named. Once insiders learned this, they would also leak false information about what LBJ planned or whom he was considering appointing to a job just so that person wouldn’t get it. Sort of like a combined political game of chess and charades.

Sometimes, maybe a lot of time, leaks aren’t what they seem. Nor the source—the person or institution that seems the most obvious place from whence the juicy or political tidbit came. Over many, many years in the newspaper business, I sometimes got stung—or at least wet—from a leak, only to find out later who the real leaker was, and why he or she did it.

Over the past few weeks, both major presidential candidates have been embarrassed/damaged by leaks. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton got it for still more leaks about what she said/promised/implied in speeches to groups from Wall Street to Latin America. Republican candidate Donald Trump “rescued” her when the tapes of his frat boy observations about women and his star status were leaked. In her defense, Clinton said she was really channeling Abe Lincoln who, she said, often said different things and took different sides when speaking to different groups. Trump came back with the old standard “everybody-does-it, boys-will-be-boys” line, while stressing that he really respects women.

The lesson, and there are probably several, is be careful what you say and to whom you say it. While that may be common sense, it’s still good to remember that what you do and say can catch up with you years after the fact. Which of course we all know, but often forget.

Which made me decide to talk about three leaks of which I have some personal (after-the-fact) knowledge.

1) When virtually all of my Washington Post colleagues left for better-paying or more prestigious jobs, they all went to work for Democratic presidents or senators. With one exception. There was one guy who took a top press job in the Nixon administration. This reporter-turned-political-flack called me one day and invited me for cocktails (in the afternoon) at the White House. Naturally I jumped at the chance. Went there, had a drink (or two). Then he suggested that I call the president of the staunchly Democratic American Federation of Government Employees and ask why he was planning to support President Nixon’s reelection. Cut to the chase, I did. The president, John Griner, reluctantly confessed that he was backing Nixon—but as an individual, not as union president. Later on, I got the same tip about the president of a letter carriers union. The leak went to me, and I broke the story. Both got major concessions and benefits for their members from the Nixon administration. And I got credit for being an ace newshound, thanks to the leak.

2) The Washington Post got wind that a top aide to President Nixon had boasted that he would “walk over his dead grandmother” to support his president. Or words to that effect. When the Post finally got him to confirm making the statement, it thought it had a major coup. It made headlines, Page 1, as I recall. The Post thought it made him look like a ruthless sycophant. But he wasn’t aiming his remarks at the Post’s generally liberal audience. He had in fact made the leak to the Post himself, hoping that his declaration of undying loyalty would find its way to the front page. Which it did—securing his job.

3) One of the best, most profitable leaks I’m aware of came from me. I was a columnist at the Post, and very, very happy with my job, my coworkers, and everything else. I got a job offer from a rival, which included a hefty raise. I had no intention of taking it—I loved, still do love, the Post. But I told a friend at work. He was the biggest gossip in the newsroom, which is saying a lot. And he couldn’t keep a secret. After swearing him to secrecy (hah!), I told him of the job offer. I said I probably wouldn’t take it, but it was flattering and tempting. Several hours after giving him my dark secret, the managing editor appeared at my office. He said the paper valued my service, respected my work and he offered me a generous pay raise. In writing. I accepted, said I was grateful (true) and would not leave the Post. The next day, his deputy appeared. He said the pay raise offer was incorrect. Handed me a new piece of paper with a bigger number on it. Again, I said thanks. On the third day, another deputy appeared. He said the last two raises I’d been offered were wrong. He handed me another, with an even bigger raise—plus the promise of generous increases each January thereafter. Again, I said thanks.

So, no harm, no foul. Right? At least in my case. So what do I think about leaks? What do you think?


Reader comments

Fri, Oct 21, 2016

Mike, You forgot to thank me, because I was the one who funded all your pay raises. Soros

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Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
Mike Causey Columnist
Tom Fox VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service
Mathew B. Tully Legal Analyst

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