Presidents do it. Members of Congress do it. Even Justices and their clerks do it. Sex? No, something even more primal: leaking to the press.

The leak - an anonymous disclosure of information, unauthorized or at least unofficial - has been part of American politics and government since our beginning. Only rarely, though, do leaks mean life or death - for a presidency.The last time was 1972, when Deep Throat first met with Bob Woodward in that immortal Washington garage. The recent leaks of grand jury testimony in l'affaire Lewinsky may prove just as important to the Clinton Presidency. As one of the last survivors of the Watergate Leak Olympics, I have advice for Clintonites determined to stop the stories: Don't try.

Two major leaks have provoked the White House. First, the press learned that Linda Tripp had gone to the staff of Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, with her tale of Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan and the president. This leak meant that the investigation of Clinton would go on in public, not in secret.

More recently, we learned that Betty Currie, the president's personal secretary, had told the grand jury that the president asked her what seemed to be leading questions on the subject of the investigation and that she had retrieved gifts the president gave to Lewinsky. This leak conveyed the sense that prosecutors were closing in on presidential obstruction of justice.

The president's lawyer, David Kendall, has responded by saying that the leaks must have come from the independent counsel's office. White House spokesmen, citing the leaks, call Starr the embodiment of a scandal culture that tramples on both individual rights and the public business.

The White House has a point. The office of the independent counsel was born amid the fevered post-Watergate piety that gave us many elements of today's scandal politics, including a press increasingly ravenous for news. The market for leaks has expanded, and the supply has grown to meet demand.

But are we sure the Lewinsky leaks came from the independent counsel's office? They might have, but there are also good reasons to think otherwise. The prosecutors already have control of powerful legal machinery to do their job. The leaks make their task harder by muddying the testimonial waters. Moreover, the prosecutors are the only people in this process against whom there are general legal sanctions for leaking.

Lots of other people could be doing the leaking. They include (but, as we shall see, are not limited to):

- Grand jury witnesses themselves.

- Their lawyers.

- Other lawyers briefed by the first two.

- Senior Justice Department lawyers who see the recorded details of the testimony.

- Still other lawyers with legitimate access to memorandums prepared by the prosecutors before and after witnesses' appearances.

- Cutouts, or intermediaries, for any and all of the above.

The articles of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1972 and 1973 described the leakers who helped President Richard Nixon do himself in as "sources close to the grand jury investigation," "sources close to theSenate investigation," "sources within the Justice Department," "sources within the White House," "officials and employees of the Committee to Re-elect the President" and, just to make sure no one was left out, "other Federal sources."

Deep Throat was in there somewhere, but it's been 24 years without an identification and still counting. So were leakers who, at the time, I would never have believed were doing such things.

It is not just these multiple possibilities that make leaks as hard to track down as the Abominable Snowman, with tracks everywhere but the creature himself managing to stay out of sight. A big-time leaker (I know, having been one myself, but, naturally, for the noblest and most loyal reasons) has some of the qualities of a professional spy.

He or she loves the game, slipping secrets to a journalist behind enemy lines, then sitting back to watch the impact. By definition, such a person will not be easy to find.

Moreover, unless the leaker is legally bound to keep secrets, searching for him or her can harm the public interest and the administration more than the leaks themselves. The leaks that infuriated the Nixon White House were about bombing Cambodia, My Lai and the Pentagon Papers. Trying to plug them produced the hapless White House "plumbers," whose excursion into the Watergate (with the wrong wrench) drowned Nixon.

Is a leaker serving the country by revealing wrongly suppressed facts? Breaching a duty of confidentiality? Sticking it to an enemy? Violating someone's rights? It all depends on the particular leak, and those closest to it are often least equipped to tell.

There is a last possibility about the source of the recent leaks that would make all such questions academic: White House lawyers themselves, who have the information, could have made a strategic decision to leak it to create a casus belli for a frontal attack on Starr's investigation.

Does this seem beyond the rational pale? If you think so, you are innocent about the double agentry and Machiavellian maneuvering of which a White House in extremis is capable. There is, of course, no way of knowing if this theory is true unless the White House confesses. But the very lack of knowledge should make us think twice before attacking any particular presumed source of the leaks. Anything is possible in this game.

In the final analysis, the leaks mean less than meets the eye. They perform the important function of maintaining the momentum of the scandal, but the truth of this entire matter will be revealed, insofar as it can be, by the sifting of sworn testimony and documentary evidence and by events well beneath the surface.

For example, the earliest signal that the end was near for the Nixon Administration came not from some Nixon-hater, but from my legal colleague during Watergate, J. Fred Buzhardt.

Buzhardt, thought of as a prototypical Dixie conservative, was a model of loyalty and personal decency, as well as a devoted Baptist.

Nixon had remarked early in Watergate that he had John Dean "on tape."

The special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, learning of the remark, inquired about the tape, and Nixon told us he was referring to a cassette. There was, of course, no such cassette; Nixon was just covering up his slip of the tongue about Dean to hide the Presidential taping system. But as part of the subpoena for tapes, Cox demanded the cassette. Buzhardt asked Nixon about it. Nixon said that Buzhardt should simply make one, using notes Nixon had.

Immediately after the conversation, Buzhardt came to my office, shaken. He said: "When I testify next week, if I'm asked whether the presidentand I discussed his search for that cassette, I'll have to tell the whole story. It will be very bad. But I'm not going to lie under oath." This was the back-breaking straw - a presidential confidant had decided that he would not lie to a grand jury.

Within 24 hours, the two of us were on a plane for Key Biscayne to lay out the many reasons that Nixon had to start thinking about resignation. It was Nov. 3, 1973, and the resignation wouldn't come for months, but the ball was now rolling.

So the process of ferreting out the truth is subterranean. White House staff members who think they can stop it by denouncing and plugging leaks are in serious error. Their efforts can succeed only in creating more problems for the country and themselves.