DISINFORMATION. It's a very big term in Washington these days, where the White House press corps was scandalized by the discovery that Reagan administration officials deliberately misled reporters - and the rest of the United States - in an effort to destabilize Moammar Khadafy, Libyan leader.
It's a touchy subject, since there are times when most Americans would support their government's use of secrecy, say for national security purposes or in emergency situations. Even the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, who uncovered the most recent transgression, would not expect the president or his aides to report rescue missions or troop movements before they occurred, for example.But Mr. Woodward and his colleagues rightfully protest that the recent case goes well beyond secrecy. A memo by John Poindexter, national security adviser - allegedly approved by President Reagan - urged that the press be misled deliberately. Reports that Col. Khadafy was unstable - and that the United States might conduct a second bombing raid of Libya - were leaked to reporters in the expectation that the news would find its way back to Libya and make Col. Khadafy nervous.
The plan may or may not have worked (the Libyan leader has enough to be nervous about anyway). But when it became public knowledge, it had the side effect of raising the blood pressure, the skepticism, and the hackles of the White House press corps.
That's probably not such a bad thing. Over the years, the many hours of leg work and basic research that Mr. Woodward and his partner, Carl Bernstein,
put in on the Watergate stories have been forgotten, and only the mysterious allure of parking garage meetings with secret sources remains.
Reporters in Washington have come to put a higher value on information that is leaked than that which is published. Public relations experts joke that if they want to bury a story, they put out a press release on it. If they want everyone to know, they surreptitiously tell a few reporters on background or off the record.
Leaking information that may or may not be true has become a trusted policy tool in Washington, where the biggest name reporters are often used (and they know it) to float trial balloons that never get off the ground.
Insider campaigns against competitors in the big Washington power struggle are carried out in leaks to reporters, as are self-serving messages in which staff members confide to their reporter friends about how hard their boss works or how concerned he or she has become about a specific issue.
Four years ago, a very well-respected and experienced journalist was leaked the news that Paul Volcker, Federal Reserve chairman, would never be reappointed. After his newspaper ran the leaked story with a banner front page, and after Mr. Volcker was reappointed, the reporter and his buddies could only surmise that the senior officials who had done the leaking had their own reasons for doing so. It was merely an attempt to gauge market reaction, or perhaps an ill-fated attempt to put the kibosh on Mr. Volcker's renomination.
A big part of the problem is the way in which the Washington press corps covers the White House. Print reporters and television journalists stay in the White House press room for long days, waiting for news to happen and afraid to leave in case an unexpected event should take place. Most of the news they receive is news that is manufactured, massaged and fed to them by Larry Speakes, White House spokesman, on time for the evening news programs.
Those reporters can't leave their perches for time-consuming research, nor are they inclined to write lengthy pieces about the results of policies or the way those policies are carried out. Instead, having trained themselves to be wary of the managed news they get from official channels, they compete for the leaks that will distinguish them from their colleagues on the prestigious, but ultimately frustrating, White House beat.
An administration that didn't figure that out soon and capitalize on the attractiveness to reporters of leaks would not be a very sharp or creative one. Anyone who is surprised by the attempts of politicians to manage the news doesn't believe in the White House press corps.
To the extent that those reporters have actually believed unattributed leaks are more reliable than published reports, the incident should have disabused them of that notion. To the extent that they will be much more wary of leaks in the future, we'll all be better off.