The Message

Taking a Leak

In many journalism circles, "leak" is a dirty word.

It wasn't always so. In 1971, the New York Times was hailed by much of the press -- and a sizable portion of the public -- for its decision to publish what became known as the Pentagon Papers, and Daniel Ellsberg, the admitted leaker of the documents, emerged as a counterculture hero. In the years since, however, the term has developed a negative connotation -- the implication being that leaked data, no matter how important, is inevitably tainted by the agenda of the person doing the leaking.

"There's something sinister about it, and readers pick up on that," says Johnny Whitaker, director of communications at the Air Force Academy. "They think there's something untoward, some sort of subterfuge going on."

Whitaker's viewpoint explains his visceral reaction to charges springing from "Relationship Complicates AFA Case," a March 24 offering in the Colorado Springs Gazette that revolved around Kira Mountjoy-Pepka, a former cadet, who was among a startling number of academy attendees to allege that the institution turned a blind eye to violence and abuse directed at women on campus ("The War Within," January 30, 2003). Penned by reporter Pam Zubeck, the Gazette piece stated that "according to investigative files," Mountjoy-Pepka "engaged in sexually explicit online chats" with DonCosta Seawell, whom she accused of raping her. As an example, Zubeck wrote about "an undated e-mail exchange" in which Seawell asked Mountjoy-Pepka "if she had ever fantasized about being raped. She responded: 'I think almost every girl does.'" Coming from Seawell, this query is especially ominous. Although he says he never sexually assaulted Mountjoy-Pepka, he served a fourteen-month jail sentence after pleading guilty in October 2002 to forcibly sodomizing a woman who uses a wheelchair. At the time of Zubeck's salvo, Seawell was in a San Diego military prison for a parole violation after allegedly soliciting sex from an underage girl over the Internet.

Mountjoy-Pepka's Atlanta-based attorney, Jim Cox, was incensed by the Gazette narrative. In a March 25 effort by Rocky Mountain News reporter Dick Foster, Cox "denied the reports and contended that Air Force officials leaked the documents to discredit women who have said they were raped at the academy." Speaking with Westword, Cox reiterated this belief and complained about the difficulty of refuting such claims once they've hit newsprint. "Your hands are largely tied," he says. "All you can do is go back to the press and challenge it to the extent that it's one-sided or not correct and point out that it has been leaked -- that it was apparently done at a particular time for a particular purpose."

"I categorically deny that anything was leaked out of here, and nothing was leaked out of the Pentagon -- and we're the only two places that are speaking about the Academy sexual-assault scandal," AFA spokesman Whitaker replies. "We'd have nothing to gain from doing that, because if it came out that we'd leaked something, it would become one of those big-institution-against-the-individual kind of stories."

Indeed, Whitaker says that to his knowledge, the academy hasn't leaked information about rape allegations or anything associated with them. Cox maintains likewise with regard to his client's case, noting that "there have been stories written, interviews given, but it's all been straight up, aboveboard." Zubeck, meanwhile, insists that the file she dipped into for her report "wasn't leaked to us in the traditional sense. It was only by a series of events that came together over a period of time that we were able to put this story togetherŠthrough the normal, diligent, long-term news-gathering process."

So who got the info to the Gazette, and how? Zubeck won't divulge her source, Cox still feels someone at the Air Force was responsible, and Whitaker speculates that Seawell could have provided the file, or Zubeck might have found it amid a mountain of public documents that only she's taken the time to climb -- which would mean that what appeared to be a leak wasn't a leak at all. Not technically, anyhow.

Questions about whether leaks fueled coverage of the recruiting controversy at the University of Colorado trigger similar exercises in hair-splitting. In two instances, journalists say that what appear to be leaks really aren't.

The latest batch of trouble at CU dates to a December 2001 recruiting party at which student Lisa Simpson says she was raped. The allegation was investigated, but in the end, Boulder District Attorney Mary Keenan decided against levying rape charges. She chose instead to formally accuse four party-goers with providing alcohol to minors.

In late 2002, Simpson took matters into her own hands by filing a civil complaint that sought to make CU liable for what happened to her. This action received plenty of local coverage, as did several other developments during 2003 and the early weeks of 2004, including Simpson's move to make her name public ("Naming Rights," February 26) and the decision by two other women to sue in relation to the party. Even so, the national media exhibited only moderate interest prior to late January, when Governor Bill Owens said CU would face a state investigation if it didn't deal with allegations of dubious doings in the athletic department.

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