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[] When War Plans Go Public: Giving Context to Leaks,

Columbia Journalism Review
January/February 2003

When War Plans Go Public

Giving Context to Leaks


When war clouds gather, leaks are never far behind. Leaks from hawks,
leaks from doves. Leaks to rouse the public, rattle the enemy, rally
friends. Leaks that bring on threats of inquisitions, leaks that raise
no official protest at all. And inevitably, leaks that demand from their
recipients in the news business an uneasy compromise of the principles
that otherwise guide their work. Now, in the 2003 version of that
age-old game, encouraging signs suggest that journalists have begun to
improve the rules of play.

On Sunday, November 10, the front pages of both The Washington Post and
The New York Times carried similarly detailed reports on the Bush
administration's plan for war with Iraq that bore the unmistakable
watermarks of a Pentagon leak. The Post piece, however, by Thomas E.
Ricks, took a valuable extra step: it explained the "strategic benefit"
of the leak itself (informing the Arab world of U.S. determination to
avoid attacking the Iraqi people; impressing the Iraqi military with the
futility of resistance). Earlier, in a July 5 page-one report by Eric
Schmitt that also outlined a U.S. plan for the invasion - a three-sided
assault from north, south, and west by air, land, and sea - the Times
took a similar tack: the reason for that silver-platter story, Schmitt
made clear, was the source's "frustration" that the plan was
"insufficiently creative, and failed to incorporate fully the advances
in tactics and technology that the military made since the Persian Gulf
war in 1991." 

Carrying water for any camp is always a perilous exercise, particularly
in a war zone. But in telling what they knew about the leakers' motives,
Ricks and Schmitt became more than conduits: they raised the public's
understanding to a deeper level. Speaking of "strategic benefits," that
one seems real. 

Gloria Cooper is CJR's deputy executive editor.

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