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Examiner
  • Truman battled leaks of secret U.S. information

  • The leaking of sensitive government information to the press is hardly a new phenomenon. Indeed, throughout his administration President Harry S. Truman was troubled by leaks to various publications, and the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 only heightened his concern.

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  • The leaking of sensitive government information to the press is hardly a new phenomenon. Indeed, throughout his administration President Harry S. Truman was troubled by leaks to various publications, and the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 only heightened his concern.
    In September 1951, Truman issued Executive Order Number 10290 reflecting his consternation about the publication of classified government information that might compromise national security. In a press conference on Oct. 4, 1951 the president declared, “Whether it be treason or not, it does the United States as much harm for military secrets to be made known to potential enemies through open publication, as it does for military secrets to be given to an enemy through the clandestine operations of spies. There isn’t any difference at all.”
    The president’s executive order did not end his worries over threats to national security from leaks to the press. In a private memorandum dated Jan. 8, 1952, the president wrote “every day I receive an envelope from the military establishment. I open the outside envelope … open the inside one and read – of all things – what I’ve already read in the Washington Post, the ‘sabotage sheet,’ the New York Times, Herald Tribune, Baltimore Sun and what I will see later in the snotty little ‘Howard’ paper, the Washington News and the Star.”
    Given President Truman’s anxiety about leaks, it is ironic that the president himself was responsible for one of the major leaks during his administration: the publication of information related to his historic meeting with General Douglas MacArthur at Wake Island in November 1950.
    Following the president’s controversial dismissal of MacArthur as commander of U.N. forces in Korea, the general returned home to a tumultuous welcome in Washington, D.C. MacArthur’s Republican backers even suggested the impeachment of the president for firing the popular military hero. On April 19, 1951, Truman decided to take the wind out of his critics’ sails by leaking to the press the minutes of the private meeting he held with MacArthur several months earlier.
    Truman wanted to show the American public how wrong MacArthur had been when he insisted at Wake Island that the Chinese would not dare enter the war in Korea. Furthermore, MacArthur had assured the president that the war was nearly over and that American troops would start coming home by Christmas.
    Truman directed a young White House aide, George Elsey, to secretly provide a copy of the minutes of the Wake Island meeting to Anthony Leviero, a highly regarded White House correspondent for The New York Times. The president bypassed his own press secretary and other senior White House aides in authorizing the leak.
    Leviero’s story appeared on the front page of The New York Times on April 20, outraging Republicans as well as numerous journalists, who complained about the unfairness of the Times having an “exclusive.” Perhaps the most outraged by the entire incident was Joe Short, the White House press secretary, who was embarrassed to admit that he knew “nothing about it.”
    Page 2 of 2 - Meanwhile, because of the surreptitious method President Truman used to make public the information from the Wake Island minutes, the State and Defense departments, as well as senior White House aides, were able to deny any knowledge of the leak.
    Truman’s leak to the press helped undercut MacArthur’s claims of infallibility, and the news media gradually came around to a more balanced view of General MacArthur and the administration’s conduct of the war in Korea.
    And Tony Leviero won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting of the leaked information.
    Michael J. Devine is director of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence.
     
     

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