Donald Trump is waging a Holy War against information leaks. He recently complained:“From intelligence, papers are being leaked, things are being leaked. It’s criminal action, criminal act, and it’s been going on for a long time before me.”
Leaking has been a bone of contention between Presidents and maverick government officials throughout the existence of the Republic. While Presidents attempt to keep private information private, moles regularly disclose the information to the media. Contrariwise, when the President actually wants to get the information out, he will sometimes leak the information himself.
In 1870, U.S. Attorney General Ebenezer R. Hoar of Massachusetts was asked by President Ulysses S. Grant to resign his Cabinet position. Grant told Hoar that Southern Senators were lobbying him to put a Southerner in the Cabinet and also protested that he had too many Massachusetts’ natives in his Cabinet. However, before Grant could publically announce the resignation, Grant’s personal secretary leaked the information to the media, and in the process blindsided Grant’s staff and Cabinet.
In 1874, as the nation was mired in an economic depression, President Grant ordered General George Armstrong Custer to lead a group to what is now known as the Black Hills of South Dakota to identify a good area to construct a military outpost. During the mission, Custer and his team happened to discover gold. When word got out, miners voyaged to the area to prospect for the gold. Many media outlets demanded that Grant annex the land. However, the U.S. had signed a treaty granting the Lakota Indians plenary authority to the land.
Grant publicly maintained that he would not violate the treaty. Yet his administration, seeking to purloin the land from the tribe, created fake grievances against the Lakota’s. Erwin Watkins, who worked as an inspector at the Federal Indian Bureau, was enlisted to issue a report about the Lakota tribe members who did not sign the peace treaty with the Federal Government. The dossier branded the tribe as “wild and hostile bands of Sioux Indians.” The Lakotas were also excoriated for allegedly killing white settlers.
The Report was leaked to the media. The leaker was never exposed. The Chicago Inter Ocean Newspaper reported: “The roving tribes and those who are known as wild Indians will probably be given over entirely to the military until they are subdued.” The administration denied that it was planning for war. However, war did ensue and the U.S. seized the land.
Theodore Roosevelt leaked information to the Press during the anthracite coal strike of 1902, telling the Media that he would nationalize the nation’s coal mines and order federal troops to distribute the coal if a settlement could not be reached. This leak effectuated an agreement by the coal companies to sit-down at the arbitration table with the United Mine Workers. The result was that the coal miners were awarded a pay raise and a shorter workday. Thus the strike was averted.
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson campaigned for a full Presidential term in office in part by trying to tether his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, to extremists. When the Goldwater campaign used the slogan: “In your heart you know he’s right” the Johnson campaign cleverly retorted: “In your gut you know he’s nuts.”
Goldwater denied charges that he was “trigger-happy.” He argued that Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, had authorized the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Actually, McNamara had ordered the Seventh Fleet to the Gulf of Tonkin, authorizing them to use “whatever force is necessary,” but had categorically discounted the use of nuclear weapons.
In order to combat Goldwater’s line of attack that Johnson was actually more bellicose than him, either Johnson or a subordinate leaked to Chalmers Roberts of The Washington Postthat Johnson had ordered the usage of “conventional ordinances only.” This was proved by listening to Johnson directly giving that order. The President recorded his telephone conversations. The subheading of Roberts’ article read: “Orders now taped.”
When Vice President Gerald R. Ford assumed the Presidency in 1974, after the resignation of Richard M. Nixon, he chose former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to assume the Vice Presidency. However, an allegation was gaining traction that Rockefeller had hired henchmen to disrupt the Democratic National Convention. Hamilton Long, a crusader against Communism, leaked the allegations to the Press. This prompted Ford to instruct the FBI to investigate the charges. Rockefeller was cleared when the accusations against him proved mendacious. Long had claimed that there was a safe deposit box which contained documents proving the accusations. However, the safe deposit box housed no such documents. Ford subsequently announced Rockefeller as his choice for Vice President.
In 1981, Syndicated Columnist Jack Anderson received leaks about potential changes in the cabinet of President Ronald Reagan. U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig was allegedly on Reagan’s “disappointment list.” An inflamed Haig blamed the allegation on a White House aide who was “running a gorilla campaign” against him. The leaker was never unearthed, but the possibility of a rogue aide dispensing this information became a story in and of itself.
There was an instance in 1893 wherein the White House successfully denied a leaked story. Grover Cleveland suffered from a cancerous tumor at the top of his mouth. Doctors told him that it must be removed to save the President’s life. Cleveland agreed to have it removed only if the operation did not get leaked to the press. The nation was enveloped in an economic depression and the President was trepidatious about the potential effect his condition would have on the stock market.
Cleveland and the doctors formulated a scheme wherein the President would tell the media that he was taking a four-day fishing excursion on a friend’s yacht from New York City to his summer home in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. During the trip, six doctors performed the surgery.
Two months after the surgery, E.J. Edwards of the Philadelphia Press wrote a story about the operation, telling readers that one of the doctors had leaked the information about the operation to him. Cleveland vociferously denied the story, and it soon died. However, the scheme was revealed in 1917 (24 years later) when one of the doctors, William keen, admitted the entire story and thus exonerating Edwards.
The aforementioned examples are just a small sampling of the leaks which occur in Presidential administrations. David Axelrod, a former aide to Barack Obama, averred during the President’s 2012 re-election campaign: “There are leaks out of every administration.”
Jody Powell, who served as Press Secretary to President Jimmy Carter informed the Washington Post of the process he employed to leak information to the media. “If I wanted to leak something I would get somebody else to do it. Generally speaking, the higher up the leaker is, the more credibility he has; except that, again, it might be better to have a staffer at the National Security Council do it than the National Security Adviser, because it would seem more exciting to the reporter and less like the party line.”
Donald Trump is now learning about the leaky culture which permeates the political-media landscape in Washington D.C. Leaks are not aberrations by rogue government employees, but fairly regular occurrences that have existed at the Presidential level since the founding of the Republic. The Journalist William Greider averred: “Leaks and whispers are a daily routine of news-gathering in Washington.”