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Leaks, from the first to the worst

Leaks have always been with us. Politicians and government officials have been leaking information to reporters throughout American history. The practice is, in fact, older than the nation itself. The leak is and always has been an essential part of our democracy, no matter what you’re hearing today.

I will mention some notable leaks in our history, but concentrate on two, the first and the worst. These are not to be confused with the criminal, computer leaks of the Assanges, Snowdens and their ilk.

It is altogether fitting and proper that the first leak I found was perpetrated by two of the more revered Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin and Sam Adams. Franklin, already renowned as a journalist, educator, inventor and statesman, was serving in London in the years before the Revolution in dual and conflicting positions. He was both an employee of Parliament as postmaster general of the Colonies and a somewhat secret agent of the colonies, trying to protect their interests.

 

In December of 1772, Franklin anonymously received a dozen letters that had been written to the British government by Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of the Massachusetts colony. The letters urged the government to send more troops to the colony in order to crack down on growing unrest over the Crown’s taxation without representation and all that.

Thinking the letters might be helpful to the cause of independence, Franklin forwarded them to Adams, one of the more energetic Massachusetts agitators, with the proviso they be shared with his colleagues but not be made public. Adams, citing a greater good, disobeyed Franklin, leaked the letters to the Boston Gazette, and furious Bostonians forced Hutchinson to flee the colony. 

Franklin’s role became known in London, and he lost his job at the post office after he confessed to protect others wrongfully accused. After being fired, he was also reprimanded by Parliament, although the London Board of Trade insisted the letters were not the only reason to dismiss the postmaster. Remind you of anyone?

Franklin went home and helped write the Declaration of Independence and other significant documents. And that’s the thing to remember about leaks. There are some harmful ones, but they are outnumbered by the good ones.

 

No era in our history was without historic leaks that enabled the public to learn things those in charge preferred to keep to themselves. Many, like the more recent ones involving Watergate, the Pentagon Papers and the Abu Ghraib torture photos, are well known and, in some cases, revered.

It’s important, too, to point out that not all the leaks have been the work of the so-called liberal elitists in New York and Washington. The ultra-conservative, isolationist Chicago Tribune published what may have been the biggest and potentially most damaging leak of all time, had not subsequent events quickly rendered it moot.

On the morning of Dec. 4, 1941, the front page of that paper, along with The Washington Times-Herald, owned by the cousin of Tribune owner Robert McCormick, carried a banner headline:

FDR’S WAR PLANS! 

The story, by the Tribune’s Washington correspondent Chesly Manly, revealed the contents of the Roosevelt Administration’s contingency plan to fight “a total war on a scale unprecedented in at least two oceans and three continents.” 

The story, taken from a leaked copy of the army’s top secret war plan known as Rainbow Five, had been written by a young major, Albert Wedemeyer, a known isolationist and opponent of the brilliant plan he had written.

Roosevelt, whose hatred for his old Groton schoolmate McCormick was almost as profound as McCormick’s hatred for him, listened as angry cabinet members recommended the publisher’s arrest for treason.

Instead, he instructed press secretary Steve Earley to acknowledge the newspaper’s right “to print the news” while urging others not to reprint or broadcast the report. McCormick crowed about having achieved “the greatest scoop in history,” which might have been true if its shelf life had exceeded three days.

Wedemeyer, a descendant of German immigrants, was questioned by the FBI, and even the fact that his German grandfather had fought for the Confederacy was considered evidence of his infamy. 

But the investigation, made public decades later, concluded it was impossible to identify the source. The FBI found there were 35 copies of the report and several hundred army and navy officers, enlisted men and civilian employees had access to them. 

 

With the support of the nation’s top military man, Gen. George Marshall, Weidemeyer went on to help plan the actual D-Day invasion, and ended his career as a four-star general and an ardent anti-communist disciple of Joe McCarthy.

The Tribune story, however, was read with interest by Adolf Hitler, who noted that the 10-million-man American force being drafted and trained for two fronts would not be ready to invade Europe until July 1, 1943, a fact that influenced his decision to declare war on the United States on Dec. 11, 1941. 

Long after the Tribune’s leak was forgotten, Sen. Burton Wheeler, a Democrat and isolationist, acknowledged he had obtained the plan and passed it on to the Tribune.

A little knowledge about leaks and their role in history might be useful to the president who seems to think the leaks, like everything else, are just about him. 

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.