Why is Team Bush suddenly leaking?

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Dec. 4 2006 6:14 PM

Drips in the White House

Why is Team Bush suddenly leaking?

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and U.S. President George W. Bush. Click image to expand.
Nouri al-Maliki and George W. Bush

It's getting really leaky in Washington. In less than a week, two highly sensitive Bush administration memos have appeared in full in the New York Times. The first was national security adviser Stephen Hadley's candid assessment of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki. The second was Donald Rumsfeld's memo, written the day before the election, calling for a "major adjustment" in Iraq strategy, including possible troop withdrawals and redeployments.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The famous discipline of the Bush administration has completely broken down. This level of leaking suggests administration aides no longer feel the sense of cohesion and teamwork—or the fear of retribution—that kept them from leaking in the past. A leaker may go to the papers to make himself or his agency look good, or because the president, or those close to him, aren't listening. But in any case, the public venting of private information suggests factionalism and infighting that can't be peacefully controlled or contained. Even if these were authorized leaks—meant to influence the debate without official fingerprints—it suggests that the Bush administration has so little credibility left that the press and public won't listen unless we think we're eavesdropping.

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Even before last week, administration leaking had grown to a steady drip. Senior officials at the State Department, Pentagon, and CIA had already learned to fight  their battles by leaking inside stuff and offering anonymous opinions to the papers. (It was an interagency spat of this kind that produced Valerie Plame's outing.) Other leaks have appeared in the many books to be found in the "Finger-Pointing and Recriminations" section at Barnes & Noble.

But these latest disclosures suggest something new. Instead of hearing a senior Pentagon official characterizing Donald Rumsfeld's view, or a retired general finally speaking out, we're seeing classified primary documents that reflect current thinking show up promptly in the press. It's the difference between catching a glimpse of Rumsfeld's ankle and watching him brief in the nude.

Why these specific leaks? One can only speculate. The Hadley memo may have been leaked by someone who thought he was advancing administration policy by putting pressure on Maliki. Or, it could have been leaked by an administration official trying to force the president to own up to the peril of the current political situation. The Rumsfeld memo bears the secretary's personal hallmarks of bureaucratic vengeance and ass-covering. Rumsfeld or someone serving his interests may have leaked it in an effort to show that he wasn't clueless or blind to the reality on the ground in Iraq.

Because these are high-purity leaks—original documents from senior aides with names we know—they can't be brushed off, discredited, or ignored. Bush and his aides have spent days reacting to each of them—revising past public statements that have become inoperative and confecting new spin. The Hadley memo so annoyed the Iraqi prime minister that he postponed a planned meeting with the president. (The White House denies this, but wait a few days, a memo will tell us otherwise.) But whatever the specific motivations behind them, these leaks powerfully reinforce the notion that George Bush has lost control of his Iraq policy. Already, his stature has been diminished by the pending second-guessing of the Iraq Study Group. Co-chairman James Baker, for whom leaking has always been a way of life, made sure that the tentative findings found their way out in advance

The leaking must drive Bush around the bend. He hates sloppiness, disloyalty, and showboating, and the leaks underscore all three. In order to be heard above the unintended news, the president has to overstate his already-weak case. To correct the truths accidentally loosed on an unsuspecting public by the Hadley memo, Bush had to make a strong stand at his press conference last week in Jordan with Maliki. "He's the right guy for Iraq," said the president. That absurd overreaching led to renewed charges that Bush is clueless, embracing Maliki though his advisers say he's no good. In order to beat back that judgment, administration officials overreacted again. On Meet the Press Sunday, Hadley took pains to explain that in the two weeks since his bad review contained in the memo, Bush had sized up Maliki and concluded he was worth endorsing. To assert that the president is in control, the administration has doubled the bet on Maliki, a public act of boosterism that harkens back to his claim that he looked into Vladmir Putin's soul and approved.

The Rumsfeld memo is more globally troubling for the administration. Bush's credibility has been declining steadily since early 2005. When he fired Rumsfeld days after saying he wasn't thinking about doing so, it took another hit. Now, we learn that while Bush was attacking Democrats as the party of "cut and run," Rumsfeld was suggesting the administration look at proposals very similar to the ones Democrats were proposing. We knew all along that Bush's charge was cynical, but Rumsfeld's memo brings into high relief that the administration was pursuing ideas behind closed doors that it attacked in public. Perhaps this is the message the struggling administration now wants to send out about Iraq. OK, the president's a liar. But he's not as clueless as he looks.

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