Ever since taking office, President Trump has been condemning leaks, leakers and the journalists they leak to.
“I’ve actually called the Justice Department to look into the leaks,” Trump said in February. “Those are criminal leaks.”
Only days after he took office — as we know from a leak — Trump asked then-FBI Director James B. Comey to consider jailing journalists who publish government secrets.
And just a few days ago, Trump again ranted about leakers who “should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
So, I think we understand the president’s position — except that he’s in favor of leaks that damage his political opponents. Recall his campaign cry: “I love WikiLeaks!”
Paul Steiger stakes out the opposite position. The revered former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal (and founder of ProPublica, the investigative nonprofit) put it this way:
“It is not the publishing of these secrets that threatens national security. Publishing these secrets threatens the secret-keepers. It protects the public interest by letting us know what powerful people are doing when they think no one is looking.”
Accepting a journalism award, Steiger summed it up: “We need more journalists revealing more secrets, not fewer.”
He’s right. In a government increasingly obsessed with secrecy, and guilty of rampant over-classification, leaks are necessary and, largely, a very good thing.
And although there are legitimate national security concerns in some cases, I’d far rather live in a leaky America than one sealed up tight — with whistleblowers and journalists behind bars.
Let’s look back at what we wouldn’t know without leaks, bearing in mind that not all leaks are created equal. Some are document dumps; others the result of dogged reporting and the cultivation of confidential sources.
The Pentagon Papers. Perhaps the most famous leak of all, Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to copy and hand to the New York Times the secret history of the Vietnam War told Americans that thousands of young Americans had been killed fighting a war that couldn’t be won. Was it illegal for this former Pentagon official to steal and publicize the documents? Certainly, though he avoided conviction. Was there a greater good? No doubt.
Watergate. The crimes of Richard Nixon and his aides, as revealed in large part by The Washington Post, brought down the president and sent MANY government officials to jail. Was it wrong for Deep Throat, as FBI official Mark Felt was then known, to guide the investigation? Americans were better off knowing the truth.
Red Cross failures. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the Red Cross raised a half-billion dollars but misused the funds. NPR and ProPublica used leaks and confidential sourcing to show that an ambitious plan to build housing resulted in just six permanent homes. Congressional inquiries and reform followed.
Government surveillance of U.S. citizens. Edward Snowden’s leak of documents from the National Security Agency in 2013 allowed the Guardian and The Washington Post to reveal the shocking way Americans were being spied on. As Post executive editor Martin Baron wrote in 2014: “In constructing a surveillance system of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness, our government also sharply eroded individual privacy.”
The inside story of Theranos. Acting on a tip, the Wall Street Journal used confidential sources and documents to reveal how this blood-testing company, a darling of the tech world, was allegedly lying about its practices, misleading investors and putting patients at serious risk. The company’s president resigned, and criminal and civil investigations followed.
Without leaks, would we know about the government’s drone-warfare program, which has killed many civilians, including children and U.S. citizens? Would we be aware of the CIA’s “black sites,” where terrorism suspects were tortured in remote parts of the world?
In recent weeks, leaks informed the public about Michael Flynn’s conversations with Russian diplomats about lifting sanctions and indirectly caused Trump to fire his national security adviser. And leaks revealed that the president spilled classified information to Russian visitors to the Oval Office.
Susan Hennessey, a Brookings Institution scholar and former National Security Agency lawyer, told me that these most recent disclosures — involving transcripts of highly classified telephone intercepts — are beyond anything she’s seen before. “This information is really, really sensitive,” she said. What’s more, she thinks such leaks are less necessary now that government investigations of Russian election interference are going forward on several fronts.
But even Hennessey sees why they’re happening: “One need not condone the leaks to view them at least in part as an adaptive response to a system failure.”
There’s little chance that the system, which discourages openness and punishes truth-tellers, will correct itself. Leaks and anonymous sourcing are imperfect, sometimes troubling, and certainly must be handled with great care. But they’re as necessary as ever.
Leakers — and the journalists who depend on them — deserve to be honored, not jailed.
This column has been updated.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan.