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The Art of the Leak

By John F. Stacks/TIME

Time cover

If we've learned anything so far from the mess in the White House, it should be that it's against human nature to keep a secret, to bottle up that delicious piece of information that will astonish with its salaciousness or confound with its improbability. Monica Lewinsky blabbed on for hours to Linda Tripp. Tripp blabbed to Lucianne Goldberg. And so on, until the lawyers for Paula Jones and then the independent counsel got wind of this tale. Now we all know.

But just how--and why--do we know? First, because the parties in the case, the very people bound by gag orders and rules of grand-jury secrecy, are as hard put as any other human beings to keep sensational information to themselves. Second, however, because they are playing a more complicated game in which leaks have a purpose. They are leaking secrets to advance their cases, color public opinion about their clients and put pressure on other potential witnesses to tell the truth. Not all legal cases are settled in the courts, and while it is not a pretty sight, we have seen this all before.

In the two years of the great Watergate crisis, leaks began as drips and ended as torrents. Nearly everyone involved leaked. The FBI, angry at the way the White House was trying to control its investigations, leaked results of its probes. Senate and House investigators leaked. White House counsel John Dean, eager to save his skin in the cover-up, leaked his coming testimony, often after elaborate bargaining about the kind of treatment and display he could expect from the news organizations to which he intended to leak. The White House leaked damaging information about people like Dean, hoping to destroy the credibility of his leaks.

And the Watergate special prosecutor leaked--top officials have often been the source of some of the very stories they decry. In the winter of 1973, after the first special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, had been fired by Nixon in a confrontation over access to the secret White House tapes, a Texas lawyer named Leon Jaworski took over the case. After he went to Washington, some of the tapes were handed over to the prosecutor's office, and Jaworski listened to them.

On a cold winter's evening, Jaworski went to dinner with the TIME Washington bureau and some of TIME's editors from New York. Setting the ground rules for the evening, one of the New Yorkers announced that on that occasion, we were all "gentlemen, not journalists"; that is, Jaworski's comments were "off the record." Toward the end of the evening, Jaworski said he wanted to speak hypothetically. What if, he wondered, a new prosecutor had arrived from Texas and heard the tapes and found they contained enough evidence to indict the President for obstruction of justice. Wouldn't it be best under those circumstances, he mused, if the President simply resigned? After dinner the reporters, understanding that Jaworski knew he wasn't dealing with gentlemen, rushed to their typewriters and filed a story saying Jaworski had heard the tapes and found enough evidence for indictment of the President. It was clear that Jaworski had begun a campaign to get the President to resign to avoid impeachment. It took eight more months, but that is of course what happened.

TIME's editors, honoring the off-the-record rule, declined to run the story in the next issue. Within days, Jaworski apparently dined again. The story appeared in a newspaper that week.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: February 16, 1998

The Press And The Dress
Drip Drip Drip
Behind The Scenes With Monica
Just An Affectionate Guy
Ain't We Got Fun
Time To Off Saddam?
With A Little Help From His Friends
Eyes On The Oval
The Art of the Leak
Inside the Magic Bubble
Give Me a Break!

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