TMS Illustration/Matt Wuerker

TMS Illustration/Matt Wuerker

Washington insiders have a bipolar fascination with, and reaction to, leaks.

First, they love 'em -- couldn't live without them. Official Washington thrives on leaks: the juicier, more scandalous, more headline-worthy, the better. At the same time, they hate 'em. Shocked, absolutely shocked. Question the motive why anybody would reveal such damaging information. Demand an immediate investigation in order to find the leaker and hang him from the nearest tree.

And that's exactly what's happening now over two leaks that made it all the way to the front page of The New York Times. On May 29, the Times reported that President Obama himself, from reports prepared by members of his national security team, selects those suspected terrorists who will be targeted for imminent drone strikes -- thereby creating his own "kill list." Just three days later, the paper reported that Obama, in cooperation with Israel intelligence forces, had personally ordered using the Stuxnet virus to dismantle computer programs behind Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Reaction to the leaks was, to borrow a phrase, "fast and furious." Proving, once again, that the most dangerous place in Washington is between John McCain, or Peter King, and a TV camera, both Republicans immediately ran to the cameras to cry foul. McCain, with zero evidence but ample jealousy, accused the White House of deliberately leaking the stories in order to make President Obama look tough on terrorism. As if the president, who has ordered more than 300 drone attacks in Pakistan and dispatched both Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi, needs help to look tough on terrorism. McCain demanded appointment of a special prosecutor (is Ken Starr available?) to probe the leaks.

Who could top that? Only Peter King. The chair of the House Homeland Security Committee told Fox News Radio that allegations that President Obama leaked information to the New York Times were "worse than Watergate." King seems to suggest that sometime before June 17, the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, we can expect President Obama's plumbers to show up at the headquarters of the RNC.

But no matter how overblown their accusations, President Obama felt compelled to respond. "The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive," he told White House reporters. "It's wrong." And Attorney General Eric Holder named two U.S. attorneys to investigate the latest leaks.

So, what's the truth? As with any other inside-the-beltway uproar, it's important to put today's tempest over leaks in perspective. A few things we know about leaks. One: Most, but not all, leaks are deliberate. As the great James Reston once wrote, "The ship of state is the only known vessel that leaks from the top." Two: Outrage over leaks is politically-driven. The same Republicans who demand a special counsel today saw no need for a special counsel to investigate who in the Bush administration leaked the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

We also know this. Three: Finding and prosecuting leakers is not so easy. As the New York Times reports, "the vast majority of leak-related investigations have turned up nothing conclusive, and several of the nine that have been prosecuted -- six already under the Obama administration, and just three more under all previous presidents -- collapsed."

Four: The more powerful you are, the more you can get away with leaks. Private Bradley Manning is still in prison for allegedly leaking documents to WikiLeaks; Richard Shelby still serves in the U.S. Senate, even though, according to the Washington Post, the Justice Department determined in 2009 that he had leaked contents of classified al-Qaida communications to Fox News.

But, most importantly, the one thing we can count on in any flap over leaks is this: More attention is paid to who leaked what -- than to what information was leaked. And that is getting it backward. Take both leaks under attack today.

If Obama is personally approving a "kill list" of intended targets for assassination -- and nobody has denied the Times story -- is that a proper role for the president of the United States? And under what legal or moral authority, and under what restraints, is he operating? Those are questions we should be debating, not who leaked the facts.

And if, indeed, we can prevent Iran from building a nuclear arsenal -- not by bombing or invading the country, but with a computer worm -- then I'm all for it. I don't care who leaked it.

Send email for Tribune Media Services columnist Bill Press to

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