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The New Rules of the Game

Secret Talkers

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

Tell the president that the way to solve his problem is to find that one man who would turn out to be . . . possessed of high competence, great physical vigor, and a passion for anonymity.

Tom Jones, private secretary to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin [1936]

A secret’s not a secret anymore. In days of yore, a secret was treated with the greatest respect. A person to whom a secret was imparted treated the secret as inviolate, refusing to disclose it to another for any price. Today the person to whom a secret is entrusted is transmogrified into a faceless conduit for the information. The only thing that is secret about a secret is the name of the person who is passing on the confidence. So long as that information is not made public, the informer believes no confidence has been breeched. A few examples from the New York Times, randomly taken within the space of 4 days, make the point. Any 4 days would do.

In a story on July 25, reporting on a discussion Senator Durbin of Illinois had with John Roberts, the supreme court nominee, it was disclosed that Senator Durbin had asked questions dealing with the interplay of religious doctrine and civil law. Two officials privy to the conversation described the discussion in some detail. They did not permit themselves to be identified because the meeting was confidential.

On July 26, 2005 there was a story describing how seriously George Bush takes his responsibility for hiring good people. The story described the technique used by the president when interviewing Judge Roberts. Knowing that Mr. Bush learned a great deal about Mr. Putin because, as he put it after first meeting him: "I was able to get a sense of his soul" it came as no surprise to learn that much of Mr. Bush’s interview relied on visceral reaction to such things as Mr. Roberts’ description of his childhood. An administration official said that one of the questions Mr. Bush asked was "Why do you want to do this." The reason he asks such a question, the official said, is that businessmen who sign up for government work lose millions of dollars by leaving the private sector. Having imparted that fascinating insight into what passes for the presidential mind, the official asked that his name not be disclosed. That, the Times said, is because Mr. Bush doesn’t like for people to talk about internal White House matters. Since the speaker wasn’t identified, we have not learned anything about internal White House matters.

On the same day as the foregoing was described, it was announced that the army plans to relocate units returning from Iraq. Two Pentagon officials said the relocation would be completed by 2008. The officials went into some detail about what the relocation would entail. They insisted on anonymity, however, because the official announcement was to be made the following week.

On July 27 there was a story discussing the leak inquiry pertaining to Valerie Plame. That is in itself, a story about secrets but I won’t discuss that here. One of the things that has been going on in connection with that story is a grand jury investigation into the issue of who gave away Ms. Plame’s secret. Her secret was whom she worked for. The special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald asked that people appearing before the grand jury not discuss anything about the case. Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary testified. His testimony was really interesting and everyone wanted to know what he said. A few people in the know imparted some information about his testimony to reporters. They did so anonymously. As the Times explained:

"The people who discussed the testimony of Mr. Fleischer and other witnesses asked not to be named because . . . the special prosecutor, has asked anyone involved in the case not to talk about it."

Presumably the informers were involved with the case else they’d not have known whereof they spoke. By remaining anonymous, one concludes, they were not violating the special prosecutor’s injunction. The anonymous informers can explain better than I why that is.

On July 28 an aide traveling with Donald Rumsfeld during his recent trip to Iraq told reporters some of what Mr. Rumsfeld said to the Iraqis in private meetings. He insisted that his identity not be disclosed since the meeting was private. By not disclosing his identity no confidences were breeched and the meeting remained private. The Iraqis will have no trouble understanding that.

If you haven’t figured it by now, the new rule is quite simple. If you have a secret you want to share, share it. Just don’t let the person you share it with tell anyone from whom the information was received. That way all confidences will be preserved inviolate.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at: Brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu or through his website: http://hraos.com/