When Washington Post executive editor Len Downie was asked by Howie Kurtz on CNN's "Reliable Sources" Sunday about legal investigations into reporters who protect confidential sources, Downie said he was troubled by this, because those sources often are the public's only way to learn the truth about bad things their government is up to, and those sources are often risking their jobs by revealing them.
Yes, what Downie described is a leak. But there is also something else, which is also called a leak, but using the same word for both is deceptive and dangerous.
When government officials or campaign operatives go off the record to a reporter in order to smear someone, spread disinformation, lie about an opponent, stab someone in the back while wearing the cloak of anonymity, kindle a propanganda brush fire, slander critics, psych out enemies, and throw red herrings in an investigator's path, they are engaging in the dark arts of psy ops.
From Caligula to Machiavelli, from the Congo to the Gulag, deception has always been a handmaiden to power. But in our First Amendment democracy, where journalists protect sources, political liars have figured out how to game the system. Lee Atwater not only knew how to assassinate; he knew that reporters would dutifully wipe his fingerprints off the weapon. Cheney, Chalabi, Rove, Libby et al are his heirs. They're so good at it that a Bob Woodward can think a lie is a casually tossed-off piece of gossip, rather than an Oscar-worthy performance in a government-wide defamation campaign. Leaker-liars know how to work the media food chain, using Fleet Street tabloids and wingnut blogs to start contagions that infect more credible sources, which use the meta-guise of covering the rumor, the "phenomenon," rather than truth-squadding the underlying charge. They know how to orchestrate multiple and equally duplicitous confirming sources. They know they can cause true whistle-blowers horrendous damage -- ruinous legal fees, destroyed reputations, jail time -- while secure in the knowledge that their reporter-enablers will nobly decline to blow the whistle on them.
These officials aren't leaking to reporters. They're pissing on the public. Western journalists had no difficulty labeling Cold War propaganda as disinformation. Why are they so willing now to let power speak untruth to them? Maybe it's time for a massive source-burning in Washington. If no one from now on were allowed to speak off the record or on background, it's conceivable that the useful information the public might sacrifice would be far outweighed by the poisons we'd purge from the body politic.
Follow Marty Kaplan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/martykaplan