Tim Steller: Every leaker acts out of own interests

All the more reason for journalists to keep digging, give context
2013-05-24T00:00:00Z 2013-05-24T08:33:19Z Tim Steller: Every leaker acts out of own interestsTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 24, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Dennis Burke, the former U.S. attorney for Arizona, tried to undermine a whistleblower in the Fast and Furious gun-trafficking case by leaking a document to a journalist, but he failed.

The reason is significant: The journalist, Fox News producer Mike Levine, checked out Burke's information and declined to pursue the story.

Burke's episodes of leaking information about Operation Fast and Furious in 2011, detailed in a new report by the Justice Department Office of Inspector General, contain lessons in leaking. There's a how-to lesson - Burke's office was exposed as the source of one leak for a comical reason - and a lesson in how leaking information can work for the common good when handled well.

Both of these are increasingly relevant in light of the revelations this month that the Justice Department has pursued journalists' records in its effort to find leakers of government-produced information. Chillingly, the Justice Department has seized phone records from Associated Press reporters and a Fox News correspondent in its effort to prosecute leakers of information about North Korea and a foiled Yemeni terrorist plot.

In Burke's case, the leaks centered on Operation Fast and Furious, the flawed ATF investigation of Arizona gun traffickers buying weapons for Mexican drug cartels. As 2011 went on, Republican members of Congress were pressing an investigation, and Burke's office was on the defensive because one of the hundreds of guns allowed into criminal hands by the operation was left at the scene of the killing of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.

On June 14, 2011, the New York Times published a story about the congressional investigation that included a link to a memorandum about Jaime Avila, the man who bought the gun later found at the scene of Terry's murder. The memorandum provided a defense of the Phoenix U.S. Attorney's Office's handling of gun-trafficking cases in a story that otherwise was largely critical. It provided worthy balance, in my view.

But as originally published, the online image of the memorandum revealed the apparent leaker: The fax number for the U.S Attorney's Office in Phoenix was printed at the top of the page as the sender of the document.

Although a Justice Department official confronted Burke about that leak on June 16, 2011 - and investigators eventually concluded Burke was involved - he carried out another one soon after. Burke was upset that ATF Special Agent John Dodson was given credit as a whistleblower against Fast and Furious when Dodson himself, according to one email Dodson had sent, once pursued a similar tactic of selling guns to criminals as part of a separate investigation.

On June 28, 2011, Burke sent a copy of Dodson's email from his personal email account to a friend of Levine, the Fox News producer in Washington, D.C., the report says. The friend printed the email and hand-delivered it to Levine.

Burke did not return a phone message left for him late Thursday afternoon.

I spoke with Dodson on Thursday, and he told me he learned of the leak of that email when Levine called him about it almost two years ago. Dodson recounted for me Thursday the explanation he gave Levine then: His supervisor had asked him to write the email proposing that he purchase the guns for a suspected criminal, so that the plan could be approved by a higher-up. In other words, it wasn't Dodson's idea.

Levine talked over Dodson's email with a fellow reporter and decided not to pursue it, the report says. That's to his credit because it appears the point Burke was trying to make with the leak was false.

"I agree with you that the more information that's out there, the better," Dodson told me. "My problem, especially with the leak is, the context in which it comes out."

This is the part that the public doesn't see when good journalists receive leaked material. Every leaker has an interest that the journalists must consider, and every leak has a context. The reporters' job is to contact those affected, talk with each other and decide how to proceed.

The New York Times did this in 2005, publishing an exposé that revealed the National Security Agency had conducted "warrantless eavesdropping" on American citizens. The story was based on leaked information, and the paper delayed publication for months in part to consider White House objections.

In a much less consequential example of a story based on a leak, I wrote in February about a new order to Border Patrol spokesmen that they no longer give interviews or ride-alongs related to the border. I provided the email to Customs and Border Protection, discussed it with them and included their perspective in the column.

Burke resigned in August 2011, after admitting to Justice Department investigators that he leaked Dodson's email, but Dodson says he holds no grudge.

"Whatever you may think about Dennis Burke, that guy is the only one in any of this who has stepped up and taken responsibility for anything," he said.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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