The Biden administration took what seemed like an important step forward for the freedom of the press. "Going forward," spokesman Anthony Coley said on June 5, "this Department of Justice—in a change to its longstanding practice—will not seek compulsory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs."
The key words are "going forward"—a tacit admission that the Justice Department under President Biden may have been using electronic data to hunt for leakers. This policy shift follows revelations that the department had continued a Trump administration effort to secure the email logs of four New York Times reporters. On Friday, Justice's inspector general announced an investigation into leak hunting in the previous administration.
Unfortunately, neither the Trump nor Biden administration has been alone in this. Many of their predecessors have used aggressive methods and the latest technology to track down officials who shared too much information with reporters.
President Lyndon B. Johnson hated leaks and fancied himself a bit of a detective in his efforts to identify their sources. He tasked White House telephone operators and motor-pool dispatchers with telling him whom aides called and where they went. "Even minor leaks irritated Johnson," noted Joseph Califano, a top domestic-policy staffer. But aides sometimes went too far to meet LBJ's standard of a leak-proof administration. Designated leak hunter Marvin Watson considered implementing a Johnson idea to construct a barrier that would keep reporters in the Old Executive Office Building apart from staffers in the West Wing. Reason prevailed and the project was scuttled.
The Nixon administration became notorious for causing itself trouble in its quest for leakers. National security adviser Henry Kissinger was involved in bugging his own aide, Morton Halperin, over suspicion that Mr. Halperin had leaked classified information. Mr. Halperin sued Mr. Kissinger and received an apology—in 1991. Mr. Kissinger's letter, made public in 1992, could have been more contrite: "Both of us have paid a price. Twenty years ago your privacy and your family's were invaded and you have been pursuing legal relief ever since. For me the result has been virtually a decade and a half of defending myself in court against charges that I was the principal person responsible for a violation of constitutional rights."
More famously, President Nixon's "plumbers," a group of ex-spies assigned to plug leaks, set in motion the Watergate scandal.
In the George H.W. Bush administration, White House chief of staff John Sununu took a low-tech approach. Each morning, at Mr. Sununu's behest, his lieutenants would go over anonymous staff quotes in the press and attempt to identify those responsible. Guesses in hand, Mr. Sununu would yell at the suspects.
At the start of the George W. Bush administration, reporters complained that the tight-knit Bush team didn't leak enough. The closeness didn't survive the fighting between the Pentagon and State Department as the situation in Iraq deteriorated. According to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's memoir, State's leaks grew so "brazen" that he finally confronted Secretary Colin Powell : "Colin, we have a problem." Mr. Rumsfeld complained that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage "was again feeding the press his version of the events." (Note "again.") According to the memoir, Mr. Powell told Mr. Rumsfeld that "he would look into it" but also used the occasion to counterpunch, accusing Mr. Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, of being a leaker.
President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign was "famously leak-free," communications aide Dan Pfeiffer bragged. That didn't stop the Obama administration from spying on Fox News reporter James Rosen and trying to use the Espionage Act against him. As the Associated Press noted, "The Obama administration used the 1917 Espionage Act with unprecedented vigor, prosecuting more people under that law for leaking sensitive information to the public than all previous administrations combined." In 2013 the administration seized records of 20 AP office phone lines plus its reporters' personal phones. These efforts didn't eliminate leaks, but they did generate unwelcome publicity for an administration that so vocally promised change.
The Biden administration may have been willing to declare its new anti-snooping policy out of a belief that leaks aren't a problem in its disciplined operation. An April Washington Post article quoted a White House reporter—anonymously, of course—characterizing the administration as "effectively a leakproof operation." Perhaps, but if history is any kind of guide, it is unlikely to remain so.
Going forward, the administration may find itself facing more damaging leaks and wanting to identify them using the same tactics as its predecessors. But doing so would be unwise. Leaks are inevitable and the search for them is rarely successful. As history shows, the best that leak hunters can hope for is failure. Some other results are worse.