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Secrets, Scoops And Snoops

Dotty Lynch is the Senior Political Editor for CBS News. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points



Reporters hate secrets. Except, of course, when they reveal them. Then it's a scoop – and there's nothing reporters like more than a scoop. Former New York Times reporter Steve Roberts, now a professor at George Washington University, says the most beautiful words to a reporter's ear are, "Can you hold on for a minute while I go to another phone?"

There is always a gap between public officials and the media over what they believe the public should and needs to know. But the tension between the Bush administration and the press is particularly high. Democrats point to the vice president's task force on energy and routinely say the Bush administration has set a new record for secrecy. By one measure, at least, they are accurate. The Washington Post's Al Kamen reported on Monday about this urge to submerge.

"Executive branch agencies – mostly the CIA, the Pentagon, the spy satellite folks and the Justice Department – discovered more than 14 million new secrets last year, according to a report to the president by the Information Security Oversight Office, a branch of the National Archives," a 25 percent increase in classified documents from 2002. Before September 11, government secrets were running at about 8 million per year, Kamen reported.

The CBS News/New York Times poll last week found that 76 percent of Americans think that the president is either hiding something or lying outright in his statements about Iraq. The decision by the president and vice president to talk to the 9/11 Commission in private, without a transcript, probably didn't do much to change the perception of stealthy behavior. The public gives presidents some leeway in the area of national security but the press tends to use a small test – a belief that if you won't reveal something, you may well have something to hide.

One secret the administration did not hold was that fact that the wife of former Ambassador Joe Wilson was an undercover agent for the CIA. In his new book, "The Politics of Truth," Wilson gives a play-by-play account of how that information came to light, and how it wrecked his wife's career and could potentially harm national security.

This was hardball politics at its most raw. After the information about Wilson's wife was reported by Bob Novak, Wilson says CNBC anchor Chris Matthews told him he had just gotten off the phone with Karl Rove. Rove said, "Wilson's wife is fair game," Matthews told him.

There is no question that the administration was furious at Wilson. They had gotten into a real pickle over 16 words in the State of the Union that claimed Saddam Hussein had sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Wilson publicly embarrassed them on that, writing that they knew the statement was false. But outing a CIA agent and shopping it around to political reporters shocked even hardened Washington pols.

The recent document dumps from the Bush and Kerry campaigns illustrates the state-of-the-art method of dealing with secrets. By overwhelming reporters with paper and technical documents, campaigns think they will stop media yapping. Often that works but just as often some dogged reporter keeps at it and finds something still held back. President Bush's National Guard records still contain a lot of holes, but now that the issue has died down no one at Bush-Cheney headquarters seems worried about filling in the gaps.

On the Kerry side, there are lots of records still being withheld from the press. Sen. Kerry's medical records, which he considers private, are just characterized by letters from doctors. Mrs. Kerry's tax returns are of particular interest, not just to be snoopy but because she is a woman of considerable wealth and someone who has a lot of influence in the campaign – and presumably would in a Kerry administration, too. She has been seated at the table during major policy discussions on the economy and foreign policy and has said she plans to continue to run her Heinz Foundation from the White House. Public scrutiny of her personal finances and the activities of the foundation are germane to assessing a potential Kerry presidency.

But the biggest secret of all may be just "who is John Kerry." His campaign has begun a $25 million ad campaign to define Kerry in its own terms following a $50 million campaign by the Bush-Cheney campaign that tried to get there first. The ads, based on mega-polling and focus group testing, are biographical under the theme "a lifetime of service and strength."

The press, however, is still pressing for more information – on its terms. Kerry is the new kid on the block. A book, "John F. Kerry," by three Boston Globe reporters (Michael Kranish, Brian Mooney and Nina Easton) who have covered him for years, answers a lot of questions. The Kerry forces talk about the Boston Globe as if it were the Washington Times, and the candidate had one four-letter word for a recent Globe series on him: "Barf." But, in fact, the book gives a very complete story of Kerry's public and private life. While not a puff piece by the hometown press, it is certainly not a hatchet job either.

So the struggle continues between darkness and light, between privacy and transparency, between legitimate information and expose. Dig we must and dig we will.

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