How Reporters Learn What Was Said in Private White House Communications

I was asked by a Quora member how the press manages to obtain information about private White House communications. This answer was published by Forbes, Newsweek, Apple NewsWorld News NetworkYahoo News (and Yahoo News UKYahoo Finance, Yahoo Sports), and the Huffington Post.


Per the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978, Presidents (and Vice Presidents) must turn over all of their records to the National Archives upon leaving office. Archivists then sort through the records and prepare non-classified records for public consumption via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The records required to be preserved under the PRA include Presidential emails, memos, meeting notes, letters, congratulatory notes to citizens and military members, as well as transcripts of their meetings and phone conversations. For this reason, all communication in which the President of the United States is involved is recorded.

If meetings or phone conversations aren’t recorded using audio or video, and usually even if they are, a White House staffer creates a written transcript of the interaction. This not only prepares a document for the National Archives; it also helps the President reference previous conversations to prepare for future meetings and action.

Once Presidential communication is transcribed, it goes through a series of staffers for certification and filing. It is during that process that most of the leaks happen. A staffer in the chain of preparation and certification can copy the transcript and leak it to the press. If it is classified material, that leak is illegal. If the material is not classified, leaking is not illegal.

Journalists develop longstanding relationships with employees at all levels in all branches of government. These are called “sources,” and journalists are very careful to protect these sources both for the sake of the source and so the journalist will be more likely to receive additional information from these sources in the future.

If someone in possession of a certified transcript he or she views as something the public needs to know, even if that person does not have an existing relationship with a journalist, he or she will often find a reporter with whom to share the document.

This is why there are so many anonymous sources. Even if they aren’t leaking classified information, their job may be on the line if it becomes known they leaked any information to the press.

As long as sources remain anonymous, and as long as there is information that concerns government employees who come in contact with it, there will be leaks. And as long as there is a free and open press, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the press will report on that information in the name of public interest.


Written by Shannon Fisher

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