Jack Shafer In Politico: Leaks Are An All-American Tradition!


“Un-American? Why, there is nothing more All-American than a leak! The Pentagon Papers, for example, which revealed the inner machinations of U.S. war policy and were published by the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere. The Iran-Contra revelations. The diplomatic and military documents liberated by Chelsea Manning and disseminated by WikiLeaks. The Snowden cache. The Panama Papers leaks and the day-by-day leaking of classified and confidential information upon which the foundation of Page One journalism rests.

To a one, these leaks helped citizens and officeholders learn what powers were being flexed behind the scenes in their names but without their sanction. Now that he’s president and not a mere campaigner, Trump has taken the convenient position that leaks are dangerous and illegal things and that secrets should be kept secret in the name of national security. But as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted long ago, excessive secrecy harms national security by blocking policymakers from the information that aids informed decision-making. For example, the U.S. Army and FBI denied President Harry Truman access to the “Venona decryptions”—the intercepts that documented Soviet espionage in the United States, because they deemed his White House too leaky!”

The leaks that have just exposed the lies of former national security adviser Michael Flynn have done the nation—and Vice President Mike Pence—a great mitzvah by unmasking his subterfuges. Flynn, you’ll recall, lied to Pence’s face about his pre-inauguration contacts with the Russians, and Pence carried those lies onto TV, where he shared them in January. It wasn’t until he read a Washington Post report about Flynn’s lies that he began his inquiries and learned what other White House officials had learned a couple of weeks earlier. Thus did Pence avoid becoming his generation’s Truman.

Elements of the conservative media (Daily Beacon and Daily Caller, for example) have attempted to sketch the Flynn leaks as a counterintelligence operation by the “Deep State” and former Obama officials to undermine the Trump presidency, a theory the president himself appears to endorse in his tweets. Without a doubt, the sharp knives of the existing and exiled bureaucracy can hobble and gimp the incoming administrations they oppose. It’s called obstruction, and both parties play the game, denying the Flynn leaks any status as exceptional.

Information is power, which is why bureaucracies hoard and declare it secret. Leaks, as the history books, memoirs and newspaper archives show us, are one of the most important ways government bureaucracies inform government bureaucracies what the government bureaucracies are doing. Only somebody who lived on an island of naiveté would ever move into the White House and think the Deep State won’t leak against him. Likewise, every president dispenses privileged information to the press and political allies to assist in his policymaking. Once—and if—he gets his bearings, President Trump will help himself to these behaviors. This is leaking, too, and it’s All-American, too.”


Some leaks of intelligence information endanger lives. That’s highly problematic and is what classification and security rules were meant to prevent.

But, overall, after more than three decades in Government (during which I carefully followed the rules on confidential information), my take is that the Government regularly stretches the privilege of classifying or otherwise restricting the use of information. Much of that which is “leaked” appears to be kept “secret” largely to prevent embarrassment, hide poor performance, or gain some political advantage, particularly when it concerns politicos like Flynn.

One of the most amazing things about the whole Flynn incident is his failure to recognize that his communications with Russian officials were likely to be monitored and his decision to “forget” what he had very recently told the Russian Ambassador. Surprisingly, his memory wasn’t “jogged” even when he saw Vice President Pence publicly misrepresent the facts, based on mis-information furnished by Flynn himself. Seems like a resignation would have been in  order at that point.