Editorials: A job for dedicated plumbers
Leakers who risk national catastrophe deserve swift and certain punishment
Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions declared war, or at least a skirmish, on leakers last week, and it’s about time. Leakers grow like weeds in Washington, and it was ever thus, but it’s out of hand when The Washington Post prints leaked transcripts of the president’s telephone conversations with foreign heads of state. Even Democrats say so, even if using the occasion to slip another needle into the president, or mock Mr. Sessions’ motives.
The attorney general told a Friday press conference that he “condemns in the strongest terms the staggering number of leaks undermining the ability of our government to protect the country.” He disclosed that the FBI, which answers to him, has established a new counterintelligence unit to manage the pursuit of the leakers. He said he would bring criminal charges against anyone who leaks classified information.
The publication of the transcriptions of the president’s telephone conversations with President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Malcolm Trumbull of Australia early in his presidency has set many teeth on edge in Washington, of both Democrats and Republicans. “I am alarmed at leaks of conversations between two heads of state,” says Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a Democrat, “and it doesn’t matter what I think of this president, this is terrible.”
“I would have lost my mind if transcripts of Barack Obama’s calls to foreign leaders leaked,” says Tommy Victor, who was a spokesman for the National Security Council in the Obama administration. “[Mr. Obama] wouldn’t have sounded so dumb, but it’s absurd.” David Frum, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and now a senior editor at Atlantic magazine, observes that the leaked transcripts “seem carefully selected to do maximum harm to [Mr.] Trump, minimum harm to his foreign interlocutors. Somebody thought about this.”
The attorney general’s warning must be enforced to be effective. The leakers — whether warmed-over officials from the Obama administration who still dream of reversing the election result, or disloyal appointees of Mr. Trump out to make a name for themselves — are convinced they’re doing God’s work by crippling the new administration. “Regardless of one’s politics or reasons behind the leak,” says John Kirby, spokesman for the State Department when Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State, “[leaks are] dangerous to our foreign policy.” Ned Price, who served on President Obama’s National Security Council, says publishing the leaked transcripts are “beyond the pale and will have a chilling effect on the ability of the commander in chief to have candid discussions with his counterparts.”
Indeed, the damage will outlast this president. A precedent has been established. Never again will leaders feel able to speak openly to each other. This has grave implications for American foreign policy and national security. Would The Washington Post or another newspaper print a transcript of a conversation about, for example, highly sensitive topics, like North Korea’s nuclear program? Sad to say, a man careful with his cash wouldn’t bet against it. No one disputes a newspaper’s right to print whatever it regards as news, but dedication to the First Amendment does not require a newspaper to be irresponsible.
Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, calls the leaked transcripts “disgraceful,” and observes that “a president of the United States [has] got to be able to have confidential conversations.” He suggests a congressional investigation, but Washington needs another investigation like another pothole or more graffiti on the national monuments.
Mr. Sessions is the man with the power and authority fix the leaking, with felony arrests of just one or two leakers to make examples, parading them in handcuffs in the familiar perp walk. Severe, and maybe harsh, but undermining the government at a particularly tense time demands harsh punishment.