Drip, drip, drip
WASHINGTON -- Everybody in this town leaks. Don't ask me how I know that. Just take my word for it.
That is the essence of the leak. A journalist publishes information, but by agreement, he cannot reveal the source of that information.
So how are you, the reader, to judge the accuracy of the story? How is the reader to know if the leaker has a hidden agenda or motive?
That is the problem with the leak and why the White House is so furious today. It is also why Bill Clinton's personal attorney, David Kendall, filed a motion with a federal judge Monday asking that Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, the man investigating Clinton, be punished for his alleged leaks.
And, indeed, the Monica Lewinsky story has been one of the most massively leaked stories in the history of journalism.
Much of what we know about the case -- or think we know -- has been the product of one leak or another.
But some of the leaks have gone spectacularly wrong. The Dallas Morning News printed a story saying a Secret Service agent had seen President Clinton and Lewinsky in an intimate moment. The source was not named. And the paper later retracted the story.
A few days ago, The Wall Street Journal published a story on its Internet edition saying a White House steward had told a grand jury he had seen Clinton alone with Lewinsky, which the president, according to leaks, has denied.
Monday, The Wall Street Journal retracted the story and apologized.
Several days ago, ABC reported that prosecutors had in their possession a dress owned by Lewinsky that might bear evidence of Clinton's DNA.
Lewinsky's lawyer says, however, he knows of no such dress.
Almost all the leaks point a damaging finger at President Clinton, and the White House assumes, therefore, that at least some come from Starr's office.
"The leaking by your office has reached an intolerable point," Kendall wrote Starr on Friday. "The appalling disregard for the legal and ethical requirements of grand jury and investigative confidentiality... leads me to believe that you have lost control."
But why in a town where leaks happen all the time is there so much outrage about leaks now? Is it a case of the White House being "shocked, shocked" by a common practice, a practice the White House indulges in itself?
The White House says no.
"We are talking about two different kind of leaks," Joe Lockhart, a deputy White House press secretary, told me. "Most leaks are in the political arena, and they are designed to promote or detract from a particular policy or to gain some partisan advantage."
The White House admits to doing that kind of leaking. But why leak? Why not just announce policies?
One reason is that news organizations tend to give better play or more air time to stories that are leaked to them exclusively.
A second reason is that sometimes the White House wants to float a trial balloon to see how a policy will play with the public. So it leaks an item through an unidentified source. Then, if the balloon turns out to be made of lead, the White House can always deny that it ever intended to follow such a policy.
"The president has never made an announcement," White House press secretary Mike McCurry said with a laugh some months ago. "We've already leaked it or gotten it out somehow."
But the Lewinsky leaks, the White House maintains, are different from ordinary political leaks.
"These leaks are a whole different world," Lockhart said. "There are no rules, no laws, no code of conduct written or unwritten about leaking information to reporters for a political story. But false, malicious and distorted information from a legal proceeding is completely different."
And the White House has decided the best way to combat them is to spring into full attack mode against Starr.
Denouncing Starr for "leaks and lies," Paul Begala, a senior presidential aide, said on "Meet the Press" Sunday, "I believe that Ken Starr has become corrupt in the sense that Lord Acton meant when he said, 'Absolute power corrupts absolutely.'"
Clinton is not the first president to feel he has been wronged by leaks. The investigation into the Watergate scandal was the product of the most famous leaker in history, "Deep Throat," whose identity has never been revealed. And Richard Nixon was so outraged by White House leaks that he used the FBI to wire-tap the phones not only of the suspected leakers but of journalists.
Recent polls show that the public is not happy with how the press is dealing with leaks and the Lewinsky controversy. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, "Sympathy for a president beleaguered by a press perceived as biased and inaccurate is an important element in Clinton's support."
"It should be the age-old rule: 'Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,'" Lockhart said. "If a source leaks you bad information, he should not be a source anymore."
And does Lockhart really believe reporters will start slamming down their phones if leakers call with juicy tidbits?
"I don't," he said sadly. "No,
2/10/98: Clinton tunes out the networks
2/5/98: The flight of the Beast: America's love-hate relationship with scandal
2/3/98: Speaking Clintonese
1/29/98: What the president has going for him
1/27/98: Judgment call: how Americans view President Clinton
1/22/98: Bimbo eruptions past and present
1/20/98: Feeding the beast: Paula Jones gets the full O.J.
1/15/98: Let's get it over with: it's time to deal with Saddam, already
1/13/98: Sonny Bono is dead, let the good times roll
1/8/98: Carribbean Cheesecake: First couple has cake, eats cake
1/6/98: PO'ed: a suspected druggie jumps through the employment hoops
1/1/98: Cures for that holiday hangover
12/30/97: Buy stuff now
12/25/97: Peace to all squirrelkind
12/23/97: Home for the Holidays: Where John Hinckley, never convicted, will not be
12/18/97: Bill's B-list Bacchanalia: Press and politicos get cozy, to a point
12/16/97: All dressed up... (White House flack Mike McCurry speculates on his next career)