Treeing the Wrong Fox

How does a non-denial become a denial? Easy — the press starts reading between the lines and presenting inference as fact.

The question at hand is, Who leaked word of an investigation into the alleged pilfering of classified documents from the National Archives by former Clinton National Security Adviser (and Kerry campaign adviser) Sandy Berger?

The Kerry campaign quickly alleged that the White House had deliberately leaked the story in order to distract attention from the 9/11 Commission report being released today. And, according to most press accounts, the White House issued a broad denial. David Sanger and Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times wrote this morning that, “Scott McClellan, the president’s press secretary, denied Wednesday that the White House had anything to do with the leak.”

“NBC Nightly News” agreed. Andrea Mitchell told viewers last night that, “The White House acknowledged that White House counsel Alberto Gonzales had been given advance notice of the investigation but denied leaking it.”

And a Reuters story from yesterday afternoon likewise reported that, “White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House had nothing to do with the disclosure.”

But here’s what McClellan actually said, when asked in a press briefing yesterday about the Kerry camp’s charge: “I’m not aware of how this story came about. And I don’t think — I know of no one in the White House that is aware of how this story came about. But the issue is that it’s an ongoing criminal investigation, and that’s a serious matter. So the questions are best directed to the Department of Justice on this matter.”

This, of course, is classic political-speak — a technical denial carefully couched to avoid making an absolute claim that could come back to bite the White House later on. If McClellan wanted to categorically deny that the White House was behind the leak, why not just say, “The White House did not leak it”?

Giving the appearance of knocking down a story without actually knocking it down is high art for political press secretaries (McClellan himself gave a similarly qualified denial last September when asked whether Karl Rove was the source of the Valerie Plame leak, which is still under investigation). When it works, it gets out the message that the spinner wants to get out, without ever having to make the claim directly (and potentially take the heat for it later on).

It only works, however, when a press corps, its collective nose twitching with the scent of scandal, runs off into the woods at full speed. Perhaps it’s time to look and see what’s been caught, rather than assuming that the fox has been treed.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.