Do Americans Have a Right to Know If Their Government Is Incompetent?
A Senate report on Trump administration leaks overstates national security risks.
A new report put together by the staff of the Senate's Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs warns of an "avalanche" of leaks from President Donald Trump's administration. The report contends these leaks are threats to our country's safety and security, but we should be very wary about accepting such assertions given how little evidence the report provides.
From Inauguration Day to May 25, the report notes, at least 125 stories have appeared in the news that are sourced from "leaked information potentially damaging national security." That's about a leak a day. The authors calculate this is seven times higher than the number of similar leaks in the early months of George W. Bush and Barack Obama's administrations.
The report also argues that many of the leaks present Trump in a "harsh light" and were obviously intended to make him look bad, which was not the case for most early leaks under Bush and Obama. The implication is that people within the intelligence apparatus want to undermine Trump so much that they're willing to compromise national security. The report concludes:
President Trump and his administration have faced apparent leaks on nearly a daily basis, potentially imperiling national security at a time of growing threats at home and abroad. The commander-in-chief needs to be able to effectively manage U.S. security, intelligence operations and foreign relations without worrying that his most private meetings, calls and deliberations will be outed for the entire world to see.
As matter of establishing a baseline of "shared facts" that everybody can agree upon here—it's obviously true that more people working within the Trump administration are willing to leak information to the press that makes the White House look bad than previous administrations. Clearly there are people within the intelligence community and in other positions of prominence who are deeply concerned about the behavior of Trump and his staff. Whether or not their fears are justified, it would be stupid to pretend that the number of unauthorized leaks hasn't gone up.
But it would also be stupid to blindly accept the assertion that these leaks all have the potential to damage national security. The report does not go through any of these news stories to detail what American interest is threatened by the leak of confidential information. It merely argues that the threat exists because the disclosures violate the law. At one point the report even says that the justifications people often use for leaks—that they're bringing to light illegal behavior or bad policies—don't have any legal foundation. This is often true, which is why Edward Snowden is hiding in Russia rather than arguing his case in the American courts. But the implication is that the government should punish leakers even when they provide valuable, vital information to the public.
As if to undercut the report's argument, the appendix lists all the headlines, media outlets, and bylines of the news stories written from these leaks. Do these sound like stories that threaten national security, or are these stories that provide information Americans should know about their government's or president's behavior?
- "More immigration measures weighed" – Washington Post
- "Trump had heated exchange with Australian PM, talked 'tough hombres' with Mexican leader" – CNN
- "Justice Dept. warned Trump team about Flynn's contacts with Russia" – Associated Press
- "DHS report casts doubt on need for Trump travel ban" – Washington Post
- "Chaotic Yemen raid still reverberates for president" – Washington Post
- "Justice Dept. is weighing prosecution of Assange" – New York Times
- "NSA feared hacking tool would get out. Then it did." – Washington Post
That last story is particularly important, because it details how our own National Security Agency is responsible for the tools being used in some very dangerous cybersecurity breaches across the world, possibly by other states, such as North Korea. That's a story about government competence and consequences. The American people should know that the massive WannaCry ransomware incident is a direct result of our own government's actions.
The report's authors also decided to classify fired FBI Director James Comey's public disclosures about his private conversations with Trump as potentially damaging "leaks." These are conversations where Comey claims the president attempted to influence him into ending the FBI's investigation of former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. And so many of the news reports that are the result of Comey's memos ending up in the media are on the list.
Here's a thought exercise: Imagine all those headlines originated from Obama's administration, not Trump's. Wouldn't we want to know how an operation in Yemen went bad under Obama's leadership? Wouldn't we want to know if his own agencies disagreed with the need for some of his policies? Wouldn't we want to know if he loses his temper with the leader of another country? Rather than highlighting the dangers of leaks within the Trump administration, this list frankly should make us angry that we didn't get more leaks under Obama and Bush.