Leaks: As Amer­i­can as ap­ple pie and presidents

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY MARK FELDSTEIN Mark Feldstein, a me­dia his­to­rian, is the Ea­ton Chair of Jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Mary­land and au­thor of “Poi­son­ing the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack An­der­son, and the Rise of Wash­ing­ton’s Scan­dal Cul­ture.”

Last week, when con­fronted with me­dia rev­e­la­tions about his staff ’s con­tacts with the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment, Pres­i­dent Trump blamed the mes­sen­ger. He de­nounced “low-life leak­ers,” di­rected the Jus­tice Depart­ment to launch a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion and vowed re­venge: “They will be caught!”

The leaks, he de­clared, were “Very unAmer­i­can!”

Ac­tu­ally, leak­ing is as Amer­i­can as Fourth of July fire­works. And just as old and ven­er­a­ble.

Amer­ica’s grand tra­di­tion of re­veal­ing se­cret in­for­ma­tion about na­tional se­cu­rity mat­ters be­gan in the win­ter of 1777, when the coun­try’s first whistle­blow­ers ex­posed a U.S. Navy com­man­der for tor­tur­ing Bri­tish pris­on­ers of war. The sailors who dis­closed these hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions weren’t vil­i­fied by their com­man­der in chief. In­stead, they re­ceived the full sup­port of Congress.

A few years later, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton en­dured press leaks of what to­day would be con­sid­ered clas­si­fied na­tional se­cu­rity doc­u­ments: con­fi­den­tial Cabi­net min­utes, pri­vate let­ters be­tween diplo­mats, even the ver­ba­tim text of a se­cret treaty with Eng­land. Al­though Wash­ing­ton was “much in­flamed,” he didn’t at­tack the rev­e­la­tions as anti-Amer­i­can, let alone plot vengeance.

Dur­ing Wash­ing­ton’s pres­i­dency, as in those that would fol­low, the ship of state leaked pri­mar­ily from the top. Per­haps the most im­por­tant “low-life leaker” of the day was Sec­re­tary of State Thomas Jef­fer­son; he and his al­lies pushed their pol­icy agenda by pub­li­ciz­ing na­tional se­cu­rity se­crets in the press.

Jef­fer­son’s ri­vals re­sponded in kind, slip­ping con­fi­den­tial diplo­matic let­ters to other news­pa­pers. It be­came an es­ca­lat­ing war of leaks, set­ting the stage for ad­min­is­tra­tions to come. By the end of his pres­i­dency, even Wash­ing­ton had turned into a leaker.

So it would con­tinue for the next two cen­turies. Ad­min­is­tra­tions com­plained about na­tional se­cu­rity leaks but gen­er­ally ac­cepted them as a fact of po­lit­i­cal life. The press had be­come a kind of back chan­nel used by gov­ern­ment ri­vals to com­mu­ni­cate and com­pete.

In the 1840s, when Pres­i­dent James K. Polk’s of­fi­cial cor­re­spon­dence and se­cret diplo­matic plans were pub­lished in the press, he vented in his diary about the “trea­son­able” dis­clo­sures. But in­stead of fac­ing crim­i­nal charges, the leaker (Sec­re­tary of State James Buchanan) was elected pres­i­dent.

Sim­i­larly, Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt wanted to pros­e­cute the pub­lisher of the Chicago Tri­bune for di­vulging sen­si­tive mil­i­tary se­crets dur­ing World War II; but in the end, FDR backed down.

Wash­ing­ton, D.C., had be­come a sanc­tu­ary city for leak­ers.

And with good rea­son: Leaks are healthy in a democ­racy. They are an im­por­tant check on abuse of power, a safety valve that can pre­vent dis­as­ters. At its best, leak­ing can be a supreme act of pa­tri­o­tism.

Trump com­plains that “il­le­gal clas­si­fied” se­crets are be­ing passed out “like candy” and wants these “crim­i­nal leaks” to be pros­e­cuted.

But Wash­ing­ton’s most im­por­tant — even heroic — leaks have tech­ni­cally run afoul of the law. FBI deputy di­rec­tor Mark Felt’s Water­gate dis­clo­sures helped ex­pose crim­i­nal­ity in the Nixon White House. Daniel Ells­berg’s rev­e­la­tion of the top-se­cret Pen­tagon Pa­pers helped end the Viet­nam War. And what­ever you think about Ed­ward Snow­den and Chelsea Man­ning, their pub­li­ciz­ing of mass gov­ern­ment col­lec­tion of Amer­i­cans’ phone “meta­data” and mil­i­tary killings of civil­ians raised vi­tal moral is­sues that de­served pub­lic de­bate.

Of course, some leaks — such as pend­ing troop move­ments in wartime — can pose le­git­i­mate threats to na­tional se­cu­rity. But po­lit­i­cal se­cu­rity — the cov­er­ing-up of blun­ders and crimes by our lead­ers — has too of­ten been the real rea­son for con­demn­ing leak­ers.

Para­dox­i­cally, leak­ing has be­come both sys­temic and crim­i­nal­ized. Amer­ica’s trans­for­ma­tion dur­ing the Cold War into a na­tional-se­cu­rity state pro­duced mil­lions of clas­si­fied doc­u­ments and crim­i­nal sanc­tions for ex­pos­ing them. At the same time, the gov­ern­ment’s in­creas­ing pub­lic-re­la­tions so­phis­ti­ca­tion led to a rou­tinized cul­ture in which news re­porters were reg­u­larly given con­fi­den­tial in­tel­li­gence to ad­vance the of­fi­cial agenda.

The bizarre re­sult: a gov­ern­ment that leaks with one hand and pun­ishes leak­ers with the other.

Top of­fi­cials in Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s White House leaked the iden­tity of a CIA op­er­a­tive and clas­si­fied in­tel­li­gence in­di­cat­ing that Iraq pos­sessed (nonex­is­tent) weapons of mass de­struc­tion — but pros­e­cuted a hand­ful of low-level leak­ers who caused far less harm with their dis­clo­sures. Sim­i­larly, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion launched a crackdown on whistle­blow­ers Man­ning and Snow­den even as it leaked a highly sen­si­tive but self-serv­ing elec­tion-year story about its suc­cess­ful cy­bersab­o­tage of Iran’s bud­ding nu­clear op­er­a­tions.

To be sure, the facts in these cases vary con­sid­er­ably. But in all of them, pun­ish­ment fell dis­pro­por­tion­ately on those who leaked from the bot­tom of the ship rather than the top. Con­trol, not law-break­ing, seemed to be the No. 1 con­cern.

Trump’s dou­ble stan­dard on this is­sue has been even more glar­ing. Since the 1970s, he has mas­tered the art of the leak, per­son­ally call­ing tabloids and hid­ing be­hind pseu­do­nyms to plant self-serv­ing sto­ries about his busi­ness and per­sonal life. More re­cently, he praised pub­li­ca­tion of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign emails and en­cour­aged the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment to hack into the ac­count she used when she was sec­re­tary of state.

Yet last week, Trump ac­cused U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies of act­ing “just like Rus­sia” by leak­ing com­pro­mis­ing in­for­ma­tion about his ad­min­is­tra­tion. The hypocrisy seemed lost on him.

Like Richard Nixon, Trump is thin-skinned, in­se­cure, con­sumed by griev­ance, ob­sessed with en­e­mies and de­ter­mined to ex­act re­venge. Both men ab­horred leaks and whipped up their con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal bases with anti-me­dia in­vec­tive. Nixon’s demons, of course, ul­ti­mately led to his ruin; what­ever short-term po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fit he gained by bash­ing the press was no match for Mark Twain’s tru­ism: “Never pick a fight with peo­ple who buy ink by the bar­rel.” Like Nixon, Trump’s obit­u­ary will lit­er­ally be writ­ten by his jour­nal­is­tic en­e­mies.

So Trump had bet­ter get used to me­dia leaks. He’s no longer the boss of a re­al­ity TV show who can sim­ply fire those he doesn’t like. Nor is he a king. In a democ­racy, the peo­ple are the true sov­er­eigns. The leak­ers he de­nounces as un-Amer­i­can don’t work for him; they work for the Amer­i­can peo­ple.

To sug­gest other­wise is what’s truly un-Amer­i­can.


Ed­ward Snow­den in Hong Kong in 2013.

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