Who leaked the drug strategy to Michael Isikoff?

John Walters seems to have given the document to Isikoff. Who gave it to Walters?

Last Friday, Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff posted the still-to-be-released national drug control strategy. (It was due to come out the day the Access to Care Act passed, and the White House decided to hold it for a less crowded news cycle.) In commenting on the substance yesterday, I speculated about which miserable SOB might have decided to spoil the release – the culmination of a year’s hard work by some tremendously dedicated people – by leaking the text so Isikoff could use it to decorate his petty, gossipy hit-piece on Kerlikowske; now the formal release won’t count as “news.”

So far, I don’t know the entire chain of leakage, but the path clearly runs through John Walters, the Bill Bennett sidekick who served as ONDCP director (“drug czar”) under Bush II. Walters’s tenure marked a low point in the non-entirely-glorious history of ONDCP. Walters and his staff behaved as if they were playing the English version of Charades and had been told to act out “epistemic closure.”

Walters seems not to have noticed that when he made a formatting change in the document on his computer that edit would be recorded in “Track Changes.” But p. 9 of the .pdf version of the document Isikoff posted has a box showing a change by “John Walters 4/29/10 3:02 PM.”

That timestamp, just one day before Isikoff’s story went up, strongly suggests that Walters was the direct source, though it’s barely possible that Walters gave it to some third party who in turn gave it to Isikoff.

A phone call to ONDCP confirms that Walters was not among the very small group of people outside the agency who had access to the document. No one I know had it, and I asked to see it and was told that I would get the executive summary only, 24 hours before the release time, under strict embargo. But it was available to everyone inside the agency on the ONDCP intranet.

So who inside ONDCP would have given the document to Walters? (The leak might have come from somewhere else in the White House – OMB, DPC, NSC – but Walters doesn’t have many friends in those places now.) The obvious suspect is David Murray, who was appointed by Walters to the job of Chief Scientist and acted as his ideological enforcer. Murray’s performance so outraged Capitol Hill that the appropriations committees made several increasingly vehement demands for his replacement, and – when Walters resisted – slashed what had been an eight-figure research budget almost to zero. Kerlikowske relegated Murray to a make-work job, but instead of resigning Murray decided to sit tight and collect his SES paycheck for a sinecure. Murray isn’t the only ONDCP employee who still talks to Walters, but if anyone bothers to call in the plumbers on this leak he’d be the first person to interview. There were many others with the means (access to the document) and some others who also had the opportunity (a close relationship with Walters), but for motive Murray stands out.

Update Sometime in the last few minutes Newsweek unlinked the document from the story. I’m prepared to call that a confirmation of Walters’s involvement; whom else was Newsweek trying to protect? As of this moment, the .pdf is still up. If it comes down, I’ve saved it and will try to figure out how to post it.

Footnote Yes, I understand that reporters report and bloggers opine; I will pay the appropriate fines to the Bloggers’ Guild and the Reporters’ Union for violating craft boundaries by Picking Up the Damned Phone. No excuse, sir. Won’t happen again, sir.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

8 thoughts on “Who leaked the drug strategy to Michael Isikoff?”

  1. Sadly, you are devolving to instigating the same kind of gossip that you accused Issikof of. Too bad. This is a damned good Strategy.

  2. Isn't it possible that the timestamp on the track changes could be from someone within ONDCP — and the name was inadvertently not changed between administrations?

  3. Nice work. I've assumed the resistance the Administration has faced from the usual suspects in the bureaucracy & superannuated drug-war apparatchiki is stronger than it's let on, but the press has done a piss-poor job of covering the story (as opposed to participating in it, as Isikoff does). Wouldn't it be easier for the Administration to mobilize support for its drug policy if the public understood the fight it's in?

  4. Why would John Walters, who was not supposed to have access to the document (and therefore whose input would not be valuable), spend time making formatting edits to it?

    I'm with Alison on this one – I think there are a number of ways for the wrong person's name to end up in the Track Changes area of a document. Also, given that there is exactly one tracked change in the entire document, and it sticks out like a sore thumb to even the most cursory once-over, I don't see how the leaker (nor Isikoff) could have not noticed it.

    Note that I have no dog in this fight, it just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

  5. This is not the first time I have seen this sort of thing in a Word Document. If you look where the change is, its easy to see what happened.

    At the bottom of page 9 is a large text box that straddled the page break. Anyone who uses MS Word has probably had the experience of a "jumping" text box at the bottom of a page — when you start cursor-ing through it as you read it on the screen, it jumps down onto the next page. But when you hit "page down" it bounces back up. It's a pain to read, so many people while reading add a few character returns right before the text box to push it fully on to the next page, or, use the cursor to grab the box and scrunch it upwards so that it all fits on the first page.

    The reader of the leaked document did the latter, probably unthinkingly while reading. But because track changes was on, it left a trace. There is only one change because the person wasn't editing or making formatting changes, they were reading it on screen and in the process moved an annoying jumping text box and left a trace without being aware of it.

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