July 31, 2017
How leaks look when they’re disciplined and strategic: Lasagna in Tegucigalpa
by Lynda Schuster
The leaks that have characterized Donald Trump’s White House operations are excellent examples of just how versatile those juicy little tidbits can be. Disgruntled with your boss? Leak! Pissed off at a coworker? Leak! Not all emanations are created equal, though; like bodily fluids and other assorted effluvia, they come in various forms, depending on the leaker’s motivation and goal.
Take, for instance, what I call the “good cop/bad cop” leak: a kind of head-fake best used as a foreign policy tool. I first encountered it while working as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. This was in the early eighties, during the Reagan administration, when the US was becoming deeply involved in Central America. The incident in question occurred in Tegucigalpa, Honduras; I was there on assignment, having just come from reporting in Panama. The talk of the time throughout the region was of a secret guerrilla group, covertly funded by the US, rumored to be training in Honduras to overthrow the Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. (A group that would come to be known as the Contras.)
Desperate to get information from the US Embassy, I wrangled an invitation to lunch at the ambassador’s residence. (A man who shall remain unnamed, but who would go on to bigger, better, and more powerful positions in subsequent Republican administrations.) There were three of us at the luncheon: the ambassador, his public information officer, and me. The ambassador served lasagna. Now, there’s an adage that reporters from the weekly newsmagazines—back when people still read them—used to employ by way of explaining their journalistic methodology: if you don’t know what they said, tell readers what they ate. In this instance, I’m revealing what we consumed because the very fact that the man served lasagna on such a miserably hot day in the tropics should instantly set off alarm bells of nefarious intent.
As we sat in his sauna of a dining room, the ambassador—sweat streaming down his face—vehemently denied any and all knowledge of a covert guerrilla group training to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. No guerrillas, no US funding. And then, his message delivered, the ambassador wiped his face with a linen napkin and returned to the embassy. As I gathered up my notebook, trying to hide my disappointment in the interview, the information officer took me aside in an anteroom. Actually, there are guerrillas, he whispered, and we’re training them — then provided all manner of details and numbers, sotto voce.
One of the first things you learn in journalism school is to be suspect of information that people provide unbidden, information that didn’t require you throwing the interviewee to the floor and sticking your spiked heel in his back. I asked the officer why he was telling me this.
Because I’m Latino, he said, and I think what we’re doing here is wrong.
In moments like these, the desire for a scoop, an exclusive, a pink pony that flies effortlessly through the heavens on little puffs of purple air, is so great that you’ll believe almost anything. Then reality—and your training—kick back in, and the earth becomes round again. He’s leaking this information because he’s a tortured soul who is appalled by what his government is doing. So tortured that he’d contradict his boss, to say nothing of official policy — in his boss’s house, no less.
And I’m Cinderella.
Which didn’t mean the information lacked veracity. During that same reporting trip, I would later corroborate the guerrillas’ existence. Its real import, its newsworthiness, however, lay in the way in which it was conveyed. In insisting on the official Washington line that no guerrillas existed and the US therefore couldn’t be funding them, the ambassador (good cop) offered reassurance to Congress, which had outlawed such activity. (This line, of course, ultimately proved untrue; hence the Iran-Contra scandal.) The information officer, meanwhile, in his bad cop capacity, could send a threatening message to try to destabilize the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. A twofer, all tied up in one nifty little package.
Contrast this slick leaking maneuver with the sieve that is the White House today. It’s every man and faction for himself: a den of Mean Girl plotters and connivers, with a smattering of loyal patriots concerned about the future of our democracy thrown in for good measure. The hallway outside the Oval Office must be a veritable Slip ’n Slide.
And yet, and yet. Without at least some of those leakers, how would we have learned what we now know about this administration?
Lynda Schuster is a former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor, and has reported from Central and South America, Mexico, the Middle East, and Africa. She is the author of Dirty Wars and Polished Silver.