By David Langbart
An earlier blog post discussed the November 8, 1963, memorandum on the problem of leaks Under Secretary of State George W. Ball sent to President John F. Kennedy. Since then, more documentation on what led to that memorandum has come to light.
By early September 1962, President Kennedy and Under Secretary Ball were discussing how to handle relations with the press. To brief the Under Secretary and provide him with food for thought, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Robert Manning to sent Ball a long memorandum.
Among the points he made were (the following are all direct quotations):
- [O]ccasionally top officials of the government display a certain lack of reality about (a) the degree to which we can expect the day-to-day coverage of foreign policy to reflect only the assessments and characteristics that we believe are the correct ones, and (b) the degree to which we react to individual stories or pieces of speculation we do not like.
- [I]n almost all instances where given stories or reports seem to raise serious problems for us, experience shows that a few hours or a few days later there was, in fact, no real cause for demonstrable concern. We too often allow ourselves to react when in fact the problem would disappear — or prove to have been non-existent — if we were to just relax and move on to other matters.
- [W]e have to give more thought to what can be done to protect the main objective, namely the pursuit of the national interest, from harm or mischief that can be done by ill-considered reporting or ill-considered talk and gossip by government officials.
- I would be deeply concerned — for the government, for the Administration and for the President himself — if this concern were to provoke us into oppressive practices or other inhibitions that would not solve the problem yet might very well hamper the ability of officials to get the information they need and use it for legitimate conduct of their duties.
- I might give a few opinions on what produces the kind of talk and gossip and bits and pieces of fact and fancy that make up a large part of the dialogue between officials and the press in Washington.
- There is no doubt . . . that the official State Department position is that within the limits of national security and national interests there is supposed to be direct dialogue between officiers [sic] dealing with policy and members of the press. . . . and it is in the interests of the competent men dealing with policies to take a direct responsibility for making those policies clear to responsible correspondents.
- People who talk to the press are supposed to be motivated by the simple purpose of the Department policy, namely to explain policies to the American people and to make a public use of the power of the press and of public discussion to help carry its policies forward.
- Often, however, those who talk are propelled by other impulses:
- There are a few who get a simple personal enjoyment out of talking with newsmen, out of cultivating them, their acquaintance, their approval, and . . . out of the personal publicity and identity that can be attained by press, and . . . public attention.
- There are the simply garrulous types who in fact enjoy being in the know and are apt occasionally to try to demonstrate this point. . . .
- There are those who use the channel of the press to leak partial information on policies they oppose, in the hope that such publicity will defeat or amend those policies; or who, conversely, will talk prematurely in order to push a policy into the open and therefore closer to acceptance. . . .
- There are those who in all sincerity believe they have all the facts at their command and that they have a mandate to make them clear and forthright within the confines of security practices and other restrictions. This type represents the best and in my estimate should be protected should there be any attempt to bring the other types under control.
- There is the person whose primary function is to talk to the press on behalf of the government in the role of information officer or public affairs adviser or spokesman or whatever you want to call him. Since this is the breed that includes . . . myself . . . , I have a particular interest in promoting their worth and enhancing their value. . . . I do feel strongly however that more has to be done about bringing this group or a representative of this group into the very middle of the most delicate situations. . . . Once a correspondent knows he is talking with a person “who was there” and once he has come to trust that person, he is willing to stake his own reputation on the information he gets. . . . .
- I do not believe that there are any simple mechanical ways in which the problem of leaks and unknowing conversations can be completely cured. I would be strongly opposed to any steps designed sharply to inhibit responsible officers from contacts with the press . . . [as they] would have unfortunate repercussions in the actual performance of officials in the Department.
- It may be possible . . . to produce a sharper awareness of the problem and to get some useful result if you were to follow your idea of talking personally to officials . . . of the Department about the nature of this problem and the concern that is felt by you, the Secretary and the President.
- [I]t would also be of immense help if some similar educational process could be applied to that area of the White House staff that maintains its own intimate and, frequently, very thorough intercourse with the press.
By the beginning of November, the Under Secretary had not responded followed up with the President on their conversations. To spur action, Kennedy sent this note:
Ball referred the matter to the Bureau of Public Affairs. After discussions with the Under Secretary on November 3 (a Sunday!), bureau personnel drafted an outline for a seminar on press leaks. Ball rewrote and greatly expanded the outline (adding all of the illustrative quotations) before sending it to President Kennedy on November 8.
Source: All documents quoted and displayed come from the file “Press Leaks” found in the Records of Under Secretary of State George Ball, 1961-1966, Entry A1-5175 (NAID 614703), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.