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Audio Document Friday: Leaks, wikileaks, and Nixon.

December 3, 2010

"Implicit infallibility."

President Nixon would be able to empathize with President Obama about leaks.  The Nixon administration was plagued by them.

Would Nixon give Obama any advice?  Well here’s what he said when he heard the Pentagon Papers had been leaked:

I’d just start right at the top and fire some people. I mean whoever – whatever department it came out of I’d fire the top guy.

Nixon phone call with Alexander Haig, 13 June 1971, 12:18 p.m.

Definitely worth a full listen.  Here’s a transcription.

In Obama’s case, it would be the top gal, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Nixon agreed with Kissinger that, “it’s [the Pentagon Papers leak was] treasonable, there’s no question – it’s actionable.”  Kissinger was “absolutely certain that this violates all sorts of security laws.”

Nixon phone call with Henry Kissinger, 13 June 1971, 3:09 p.m.

Here’s a transcription.

(Of course, one must be an American to be found guilty of treason under American law.)

Nixon also raged against the New York Times for publishing the documents, calling the decision to publish, “treasonable” and “a bunch of crap.” Days later, he tried to censor publication.  (This option is highly unfeasible to Obama because the Supreme Court eventually ruled in the “Pentagon Papers” case that even the publication of classified information is protected by the First Amendment.  Moreover, wikileaks is not hosted in the US, so it is not subject to US law; the US has no legal jurisdiction over the foreign servers that are hosting the documents.)

Nixon’s bloodlust against leakers (his negotiation position on the US-Soviet Anti Ballistic Missile treaty was also leaked in 1970) eventually led to his downfall.  He created a group of “plumbers” who broke into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office after they learned that he had leaked the Pentagon Papers.   Later, Nixon ordered the plumbers to secretly break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, subsequently lied about it, and was eventually forced to resign from office.

W. Mark Felt a.k.a. “Deep Throat” –the secret source who exposed the Watergate scandal to the Washington Post– was also a subject of one of Nixon’s leak-related rants.  Upon learning that Felt was leaking information (the recorded conversation does not explicitly mention Watergate), Nixon asked, “Now why the hell would he do that?”

Apparently, Nixon believed that Felt’s religion might hold an answer as to why he would leak.  He ended the conversation by asking:

Nixon:  Is he a Catholic?
H.R.  Haldeman:  I don’t know.
Nixon:  Find out. Find out. [Unclear] Catholic [unclear], believe me
Haldeman:  I think he’s Jewish. [Unclear]
Nixon:  Christ! I’m not going to put another Jew in there. Mark Felt is certainly a Jewish name. Well, that could explain it, too.

Nixon, Ziegler, Haldeman, Butterfield, and Haig, 19 October 1972, time: 1:48 pm

Transcription (h/t Miller Center).

(Some have speculated that Private Bradley Manning’s alleged decision to leak was related to his sexual orientation.) 

But –as I’ve blogged about before– the most prescient insight about leaks didn’t come from Nixon, but from his Chief of Staff (and partner in crime), H. R. Haldeman:

But out of the gobbledygook, comes a very clear thing: you can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment; and the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong.

Nixon Oval Office meeting with H.R. Haldeman.  Monday 14 June 1971, 3:09 PM. Click above to play.

Transcription Here.

From my perch –notwithstanding  the torture-hushing, UN spying, or unflattering language– the wikileaded State Department cables are different from the Pentagon Papers (the Iraq and Afghanistan wikileaks dumps –less so; the Apache Helicopter “Collateral Murder” video– much less so).  These cables confirm what we thought US diplomats were doing overseas: collecting as much information as possible and trying to predict the future.  The wikileak cables do not destroy the “implicit infallibility” of the State Department (which never existed).  Rather, what they ultimately do, is confirm that US diplomats have been doing an effective job abroad working abroad to promote US interests.  (A job which just got a little bit tougher.)

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Nate Jones permalink*
    December 4, 2010 12:13 pm

    Skepticalbureaucrat correctly points out that Nixon would actually (hypothetically) advise Obama to fire Bob Gates, as the cables were (allegedly) leaked from the Department of Defense. Sorry Hil!

    http://skepticalbureaucrat.blogspot.com/2010/12/wiki-warm-up-611-down-249389-to-go.html

  2. December 6, 2010 3:32 pm

    I have to take a bit of exception to your assumptions regarding what advice I’d give the current president on this WikiLeaks problem.

    The matter here is not firing the “top guy” although it’s clear that the memo leak is from State. Surely Clinton needs to have her feet held to the fire about this.

    But more importantly is exacting a price for this. Firing the person in charge is a start, but it doesn’t really make the leaker pay. For that, you need to get personal, with a disproportionate response. When we found out Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, it wasn’t enough to fire his superiors, we needed to get him, too.

    Just thought I’d help you out.

Trackbacks

  1. Creative-i : Wikileaks News Roundup 28 December – 7 December, 2010
  2. Creative-i : Wikileaks News Roundup Archive 28 November – 8 December, 2010
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