PAUL HOLMES: White House's response to leak allegations prompts a flood of criticism from the media
PR Week USA,
Monday, 06 October 2003,
The best way to keep a troubling story alive is to stonewall, which makes the White House reaction to allegations that it leaked the identity of an undercover CIA operative all the more puzzling. By steadfastly refusing to launch its own investigation into the incident, the Bush administration has sent the Washington rumor mill into overdrive, as reporters and their sources speculate as to where the leak came from.
The leak revealed that the wife of Robert Wilson, a former ambassador dispatched to Niger to find evidence of arms sales to Saddam Hussein, was an active CIA agent.
Not surprisingly, the more the White House stonewalled, the more intense the speculation became that the leaker must be a very senior official - with suspicion settling on senior adviser Karl Rove, who has a history of passing information to reporter Robert Novak and who would not be hindered by an overactive conscience.
As speculation about Rove's involvement intensified, reporters questioned new Bush spokesman Scott McClellan, whose defense of Rove, and explanation for the President's lack of interest in a serious security breach, produced one of the most hilarious exchanges in recent memory.
For perhaps the first time, it is now apparent how much the White House misses Ari Fleischer.
It's quite possible, of course, that the White House was taken off-guard by this newfound media tenacity. The first three years of Bush's tenure were characterized by a fourth estate that acted more like a lap dog than a terrier, apparently afraid of being perceived as anywhere to the left of Fox News and therefore of dubious loyalty.
If I had to pick a moment at which the media rediscovered its bark, if not its bite, it was when the President emerged from a fighter plane in full battle dress on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. That stunt made reporters realize just how cynically they were being used. Bush's military record, after all, makes Michael Dukakis look like Sergeant Rock, and Dukakis was excoriated for a similar performance.
Now the questions of loyalty must be asked of those inside the administration. There's a big difference between questioning the judgment of an elected official and blowing the cover of an intelligence asset. (If you don't think so, ask yourself what the White House would say if this kind of leak had come from an opponent of the war.)
White House defenders have so far questioned the ambassador's credentials and suggested (in the National Review) that he brought the leaks on himself by refusing to support the administration's claims on the Niger story. They are going to have to do better if they want this story to go away.
Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 years writing about the PR business for publications including
PRWeek, Inside PR, and
Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of
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PR Week USA