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Washington's leak soup

The Ship of State, it has been said, is the only kind of ship that leaks mainly from the top.

Presidents hate unauthorized leaks, which they regard as limiting their freedom of action. President Nixon started on his road to ruin by employing a crew of "plumbers" to hunt down leaks by surveillance and break-ins. President Reagan, who said he was "up to my keister" in leaks, talked half-seriously of the guillotine for leakers. President Clinton circulated a memo complaining of being distressed about leaks. The memo leaked, of course.

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Three times recently, the Bush administration has been bedeviled by national security leaks. One was about the so-called "shadow government" – the 90-day rotation of officials to secret locations to ensure continuity of government in case of a catastrophic attack on Washington. That generated a confused debate about the presidential succession and where Congress fits into the picture.

Next, someone leaked the Pentagon's plan to create an Office of Strategic Influence, so-called, which could resort to "disinformation" campaigns. That quickly died of exposure.

Now comes the Nuclear Posture Review, suggesting the possible use of nuclear weapons against nonnuclear countries to preempt the use of other weapons of mass destruction.

"Nukes" have been a neuralgic issue in America since that first mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. Supporting the use of tactical nuclear weapons hurt Sen. Barry Goldwater in the presidential election of 1964. Gen. Colin Powell wrote in his autobiography that, as a corps commander in Germany in 1986, he objected to plans to use nuclear artillery to stem a Soviet invasion, saying that would risk Soviet retaliation and possible escalation to an all-out nuclear war.

"We would be crossing a threshold," Mr. Powell said.

The Bush administration was clearly upset by the leak of the nuclear posture statement. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that whoever leaked it "violated federal criminal law." President Bush responded to a question at his news conference on March 13 by saying, "I presume you are referring to the nuclear review that was recently in the press." He proceeded to defend the need for smaller nuclear weapons to deter an attack on the United States.

One can only speculate, of course, about who leaks national security secrets and why. For some, it must be a form of whistle-blowing to upset some administration plan. For others, simply a way of getting kicks from the influence one can exert from behind the scenes. Congress is known to be very porous. But, one way or another, leaks are a settled part of the governmental process.

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• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.