Is This What The News Looks Like When A Policy Goes Bad?

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz this morning sheds a little light on what's behind some of the leaks we've seen out of the Bush administration in recent weeks – from the Donald Rumsfeld memo voicing doubts about the Iraq war to Stephen Hadley's internal memo raising questions about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki:
Bush and Vice President Cheney have excoriated news organizations, especially the Times, for publishing national security secrets, but not this time. "I guess it's easier to rally the faithful with a cry of 'national security' than with a complaint that 'this is really embarrassing,' " Times Editor Bill Keller told the New York Observer.

But White House counselor Dan Bartlett says officials are indeed upset: "I haven't seen a more egregious leak in my time in government, timed to influence a very important meeting with a head of state."

David Greenberg, a professor of journalism and history at Rutgers University, says that "you see this kind of breakdown in an administration's unitary facade when there's a lot more internal dissension. As a rule, leaking occurs when people in an administration feel there's some kind of advantage to be gained in mobilizing public pressure, and journalistic pressure, against someone else on the inside."

Despite the intense desire on the part of the administration to present a unified front (not to mention a pretty good track record of doing just that), it appears these leaks are springing as the result of pressure from the growing unpopularity and criticism of the war.

Coincidentally, former CBS correspondent Murray Fromson offers further evidence of this message breakdown in a New York Times op-ed today. Fromson was a Vietnam War correspondent for CBS and finally unveils the source for a story which, according to the reporter, helped "gradually altered perceptions" of that war. It was a story reported first by the late New York Times reporter R.W. "Johnny" Apple Jr. and then by Fromson himself on CBS' airwaves. Fromson writes that his source has released him from his pledge of confidentiality and tells the tale:

In 1967, when I was a CBS News correspondent in Vietnam, I met an American general at a cocktail party in Saigon. He whispered to me: "Westy just doesn't get it. The war is unwinnable. We've reached a stalemate and we should find a dignified way out." He was referring to Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of United States forces in Vietnam.

The reception was crowded and noisy, and I asked whether I could meet with him at another time. "O.K., but no cameras," he replied. Might I bring another reporter with me? "O.K., but one only."

That "one" reporter, of course, turned out to be Apple and Fromson recalls the visit the two reporters had with their source, General Frederick Weyand and what he told them was fairly explosive – that, in his estimation, it could take "generations" to win a war of attrition in Vietnam. According to Fromson:
The report enraged President Lyndon Johnson, General Westmoreland and, as I recall it, Gen. Earle Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Johnson then initiated action to call up an additional 205,000 troops for the coming war against the North Vietnamese. But the action was negated by the misleading perception many of us had that the Communists achieved a major victory in the Tet offensive, which began on Jan. 30, 1968.
Fromson had previously asked Weyand to allow him to reveal him as the source around the 20th anniversary of the war but the general declined because Westmorland was a friend of his and still alive. The commanding general passed away in 1995 and Apple's recent passing posed another opportunity which Weyand agreed to.

It's an interesting tale, one we may very well be seeing repeated in today's news, as Kurtz points out. It appears there is be a tipping point where sources become more willing to speak and leak as events work against a policy. Not surprisingly, last month's Midterm elections have probably helped the tipping since it has ushered in a Democratic Congress and all the investigative power which comes with it. Fromson acknowledges there is no real way to gauge the impact of his 1967 story, but sees a bigger point:

To me, writ larger, our reports demonstrated how important it was and is for journalists to offer pledges of confidentiality to credible sources in order to report the kind of stories officials normally are reluctant to discuss. It was essential during the Vietnam War, as it is essential today in Iraq.