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Cokie Roberts Answers Your Questions About The History Of Leaks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's Ask Cokie about leaks. President Trump is not the first chief executive to fume about leaked information. President Richard Nixon didn't like it either when he heard of a leak while talking with his national security adviser in 1971.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDER HAIG: Very significant, this damned New York Times expose of the most highly classified documents of the war.

RICHARD NIXON: I didn't read the story. But you mean that was leaked out of the Pentagon? This is a devastating security breach of the greatest magnitude.

INSKEEP: They're referring to the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of U.S. mistakes and deceptions in the Vietnam War. Rather than secret histories, President Trump is contending with revelations of a not-so-secret present. Our audience had questions for Cokie Roberts, who explores how Washington works. And now Cokie is about to leak her answers. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: (Laughter) Hi, Steve - very leaked.

INSKEEP: Our first question refers to the fired FBI director, James Comey, who revealed memos of his conversations with the president.

LIZ FERNANDEZ: Hi, Cokie. This is Liz Fernandez from Madison, Wisc. If it's not classified, is it really leaking?

INSKEEP: So many people have asked this after Comey said that he was the one who arranged for a newspaper, ultimately, to get his memos of conversations.

ROBERTS: Yes, it is leaking, even if it's not classified. Look - there are lots of leaks. We can go back to Alexander Hamilton here, Steve. When he had made the mistake of saying something negative about Thomas Jefferson's character, Jefferson's defenders leaked to the press letters about Hamilton's affair with Maria Reynolds. And it was totally just to discredit him politically.

And you've seen it over and over. You saw it with Gary Hart and the Monkey Business. You saw it with David Petraeus and the story of him giving his information to his biographer and the woman with whom he was having an affair. These things are done for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with classified materials.

INSKEEP: I guess people are arguing over exactly what to call it because we think of leaking as bad. And people who support Comey's point of view don't want to think of him that way. Michael Ashton on Twitter asks, isn't Comey more of a whistleblower than a leaker because, he says, leakers rarely are willing to identify themselves?

ROBERTS: This is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Most leakers on policy matters would say that they are whistleblowers - that they are just getting out to the public something that the public needs to know. And that was certainly the case in the Pentagon Papers. But people in office, of course, don't see it that way. They see it as an attempt to undermine what they're doing, and they try to stop it. And that was most especially true in the Obama administration.

INSKEEP: Oh, that leads to our next question here.

GREG NELSON: Hello. My name is Greg Nelson (ph), and I live in San Marcos, Texas. My question is, how does the Obama administration's treatment of whistleblowers compare to the others?

INSKEEP: Cokie?

ROBERTS: Well, the Obama administration prosecuted more leaks than all other presidential administrations prior to it combined and sent several of the leakers to jail. But, you know, even with all these prosecutions, WikiLeaks happened on President Obama's watch. And of course, that was more secret information than has ever before been revealed in history.

INSKEEP: So another question here from Darren Sowards - and this is the question that's a bit of history. Did the government encounter any leaks issues during World War II? And if so, how did they handle it then?

ROBERTS: So now that the war's been over for 70 years, all of these documents are getting unsealed, and they are absolutely fascinating. One is that the Battle of Midway seems to have been leaked to the Chicago Tribune. And it could have revealed that we had broken Japanese codes. But it's really important, Steve, to remember how different it all was. Everyone was on the same side. Reporters wore uniforms, and they readily subjected stories to military censorship. I always think it's an amazing fact that 558 journalists were accredited to D-Day, and nobody broke that story before it happened.

INSKEEP: Different times. Commentator Cokie Roberts, thanks very much.

ROBERTS: Always good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: You can Ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by emailing us at askcokie@npr.org or tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.