Why Do Leakers Leak?

Stephen Hess’ new book, “What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect” (you mean you haven’t read about it recently?), features an interesting — and funny — section entitled “Why Leakers Leak,” which will obviously be of interest to FishbowlDC readers.

Join us after the jump…


    “The Ego Leak”

    Giving information primarily to satisfy a sense of self-importance: in effect, “I am important because I can give you information that is important.” This type of leak is popular with staff, who have fewer outlets for ego tripping. Assistants like to tell (and embellish) tales of struggle among their superiors. I believe ego is the most frequent cause of leaking, although it may not account for the major leaks. Other Washington observers disagree. Many reporters and officials prefer to think of leaks as more manipulative and mysterious, but this, of course, also serves their egos.

    “The Goodwill Leak”

    A play for a future favor: The primary purpose is to accumulate credit with a reporter, which the leaker hopes can be spent at a later date. This type of leak is often on a subject with which the leaker has little or no personal involvement and happens because most players in governmental Washington gather a great deal of extraneous information in the course of their business and social lives.

    “The Policy Leak”

    A straightforward pitch for or against a proposal using some document or insiders’ information as the lure to get more attention than might be otherwise justified. The great leaks, such as the Pentagon papers in 1971, often fit this category.

    “The Animus Leak”

    Used to settle grudges. Information is disclosed to embarass another person.

    “The Trial-Balloon Leak”

    Revealing a proposal that is under consideration in order to assess its assets and liabilities. Usually proponents have too much invested in a proposal to want to leave it to the vagaries of the press and public opinion. More likely, those who send up a trial balloon want to see it shot down, and because it is easier to generate opposition to almost anything than it is to build support, this is the most likely effect.

    “The Whistle-Blower Leak”

    Unlike the others, usually employed by career personnel. Going to the press may be the last resort of frustrated civil servants who feel they cannot correct a perceived wrong through regular government channels. Whistle-blowing is not synonymous with leaking; some whistle-blowers are willing to state their case in public.

    Leaks can be meant to serve more than one purpose, which complicates attempts to explain the motivation behind a particular leak. An ego leak and a goodwill leak need not be mutually exclusive; a policy leak also could work as an animus leak, especially since people on each side of a grudge tend to divide along policy lines; and all leaks can have policy implications regardless of motive.

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