In a Tweet posted on February 16th, President Donald Trump denounced “low-life leakers,”—the people who reveal government secrets to the media—promising that they “will be caught.”
The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2017
3 months later, Trump’s erratic and grammatical-error-ridden Tweets have continued. So too, unfortunately for Mr. Trump, has the barrage of leaks that seriously raise doubts about the efficacy of the Trump administration.
Leaks are most often denounced because they are alleged to hurt national security. Arguments vary, from the simple—like counterterrorism, intelligence sharing, and surveillance circumvention—to the complex, like cybersecurity, but the point is clear: when leakers disclose government secrets, our adversaries know more about our actions. Knowledge is power, and so if our enemies possess our knowledge, they gain power and we lose it.
This argument makes sense. It would be naive to say that leaks have never harmed the national security of the United States. Unauthorized disclosures can sometimes make the United States look untrustworthy, thus lessening the likelihood of intelligence sharing that is crucial to counterterrorism operations.
They also allow terrorists to circumvent our surveillance. In 1983, for example, many attribute the bombing of a barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 people, to the disclosure of classified information. Months before the attack, American news agencies had revealed that the United States had been intercepting communications from a Middle Eastern terrorist group located near Syria and Iraq. Subsequently, the terrorists changed their methods and carried out an attack, unbeknownst to the United States who could have previously surveilled them.
It is difficult to calculate to what extent leaks contributed to this attack. But it would be wrong to say they played no part. And for that reason, determining the virtuousness of leaks requires a nuanced approach. After all, if leaks have contributed to atrocities like the Beirut bombing in 1983, what’s so wrong with President Trump taking a stand against them?
The answer is complicated, but it really involves two key arguments. First, that Mr. Trump has little regard for preventing the type of national security leaks that harm our country. And second, he is primarily concerned with preventing leaks that expose malfeasance in his own administration. In doing so, Mr. Trump not only puts us on the road to tyranny, he makes our country less safe in the process.
First, a clarification: not all leaks are cut from the same cloth. As hinted at in the previous paragraph, some disclosures genuinely help our enemies. Others, however, expose the wrongdoings of our own government, at a virtually nonexistent cost to the United States’ national security. Yochai Benkler, writing at Harvard University, defines these “accountability leaks” as unauthorized disclosures that are “primarily driven by conscience, and demand accountability for systematic error, incompetence, or malfeasance.” In other words, they “expose substantial instances of illegality or gross incompetence” in the deepest parts of our government.
Accountability leaks are important for good governance, Benkler notes, because the government is not infallible. Our government—as made rather evident in the past few months—makes mistakes. And so, it is crucial to have a check on those mistakes, to make sure they do not metastasize into disasters. Examples of these accountability leaks have been evident in recent months (because governmental incompetencies have become more ubiquitous). Think about the leak that exposed General Michael Flynn’s communications with Russia, or the ones that revealed Mr. Trump’s reason for firing FBI Director James Comey while he was investigating the president’s ties to Russia (noticing a trend?). These leaks have in no way made us less safe. Showing that our current administration frequently talks to Russia does not encourage terrorists to change their tactics. On the contrary, an administration that potentially colludes with Vladimir Putin unbeknownst to the American public should raise serious concerns.
Which is exactly why accountability leaks are so crucial. Without them, our government would likely be in a friendly relationship with Russia, a country who helps ISIS in Syria, invades sovereign countries, meddles in elections, and hopes for the disintegration of the European Union.
Those seeking to maximize governmental efficiency and preserve national security need to find a precise balance; that is, they need a clear standard for what leaks should and should not be tolerated.
The problem with President Trump, I believe, is that he has little desire to prevent national security secrets from being leaked. After all, one of the most glaring examples of a national security leak in the last 100 days has been the unauthorized sharing of classified information regarding counterterrorism with Russia’s foreign minister. The result? The initial source of that intelligence, Israel, becoming more hesitant to cooperate with us.
So much so, that Israeli intelligence officers are “boiling mad and demanding answers.” Israel’s former head of Mossad, Danny Yatom, said his country would have to now “think twice before conveying very sensitive information.” As one official told CBS, “someone might really die” due to Trump’s recklessness.
In other words, Mr. Trump’s blunder serves as a striking example of how leaks can harm the United States. Whether his intent was to harm the U.S., to better relations with Russia, or he simply didn’t know what he was doing, the overarching conclusion is simple: Donald Trump does not care about leaks if or when they harm the national security of the United States.
And so, if Mr. Trump isn’t concerned about dangerous leaks, who is he attacking in his Tweets denouncing the “low-life leakers” in his administration? The only group of people left—accountability leakers. The reason Mr. Trump has an aversion toward accountability leakers is rather clear: they’re singlehandedly destroying the credibility of his administration.
Think of it this way: if governmental officials detect that something is fishy in the highest ranks of the Trump administration, they need an outlet to express their discontent. Rather than take a Snowden-style-martyrdom approach, most use the outlet of the media to disseminate their findings. In this way, leaks are the most credible form of accountability within our government.
The recent wave of leaks has undoubtedly accelerated a pursuit of justice, specifically in investigating Russian meddling in our election. As author Rahul Sagar notes in an interview with Wired, leaks give lawmakers more credibility when holding Trump accountable. Clearly, speculative calls to investigate Trump and Russia without any evidence would seem opportunistic or pointless. But when there is evidence of collusion—usually made public through leaks—it legitimizes the decisions of lawmakers to ask more questions. So much so, Sagar notes, that now even leading Republican senators like Marco Rubio can call for investigations regarding Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election. The availability of evidence is crucial when investigating something as secretive as the Trump-Russia relationship, which is why the president is so hostile towards leaks—and why they are so important.
Current law prevents the unauthorized disclosure of classified information that could harm the United States. David Laufman notes that current law is rather specific as to who can be punished for leaking classified information in his simplification of Title 18 of the U.S. Criminal Code, Section 793:
a person who lawfully possesses or has access to “information respecting the national defense,” and willfully discloses that information to someone not authorized to receive it, may be subject to a fine of up to $250,000, imprisonment of up to ten years, or both. But the government may charge a government official only if it can be proved that the official “has reason to believe” that the information disclosed “could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”
Laufman’s explanation makes clear the point that leakers can currently be prosecuted if their leaks could harm the United States. This law is reasonable. It protects those who disseminate government secrets at no cost to our national security but still allows for the prosecution of those who harm our country by disclosing information illegally.
Is this law always rigorously and correctly applied? Probably not. But if that is the case, the solution is not to “capture” all leakers, as Mr. Trump would argue (or Tweet). Rather, current law should simply be applied more aggressively.
Mr. Trump is waging a war on leakers—but primarily the ones that expose his own malfeasance. If he were to win, the American public would be less informed, the government would be more entrenched in inefficiency, and the United States of America would be less safe. The stakes are high, and we can only hope Mr. Trump will lose his war—and justice will win.