Leaks are part of Washington’s culture. Politicians and bureaucrats leak to media all the time. Historically, some of them have had huge consequences.
Still, the amount and quality of leaks in the first few months of Donald Trump’s presidency are astounding.
On Friday, Sessions complied with Trump’s pressure. He promised to clamp down on those who leak classified material.
Leaks: The Ugly Part
Now, Sessions is right to pursue those who leak secrets. People with access to material affecting national security do have a responsibility to prevent disclosure.
Earlier, on Thursday, someone leaked transcripts of Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders. Both Democrats and Republicans were angry about this incident. These leaks are ugly as they damage norms of international relations. Leaders of states have to be able to talk frankly with each other.
But Sessions’ threat to target the media for receiving and publishing classified information is also ugly. Indeed, it seems un-American.
Both for First Amendment reasons and to gain readers, the media will publish anything that is remotely newsworthy. We, as readers, consume this information eagerly.
At times, the media can be persuaded to postpone or kill a story. This would especially be so if publication of all details can lead to physical harm. That is not always the case.
Sometimes, the leak can be negative for the government, but positive for the country and the world. That is when the media must make a decision.
Leaks: The Good/Bad
Those who leak take a risk in revealing information. Jail-terms can be stiff. Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years for his leaks.
Leaking is even riskier with modern technology that can digitally reveal the culprit. These “digital fingerprints” ended up catching a recent leaker, Reality Winner.
Nevertheless, people continue to leak. People reveal information for various reasons. For some, exposing illegal actions, even if classified, is the right thing to do. The Abu Ghraib and Watergate revelations were clear examples of this.
Sometimes people, especially in the political and bureaucratic world, leak information about their rivals. We saw this during the White House communications mess.
At other times, government figures themselves might disclose a proposal as a “trial balloon.” This gives them an idea of whether people would be receptive or hostile to the scheme.
In the above cases, the leaks are beneficial or harmless to the country. On the other hand, some cases are more complicated.
Edward Snowden’s leaks about NSA surveillance programs may have caused harm to national security. However, it did cause people to think about what they were putting on their computer, in their emails, and on social media.
WikiLeaks’ disclosure of diplomatic cables was enormously embarrassing to many governments. The public release of these cables damaged diplomacy. Nevertheless, it also revealed the hypocrisy of governments.
In the end, whether a leak is ugly, good, or bad depends on your position.