By CHRISTOPHER MANION
A specter is haunting Washington. A full-scale war is raging between pro- and anti-Trump civil servants who are providing highly classified information to various media covering the Trump administration and its critics.
The situation is rapidly escalating to the point where it could result in criminal charges, as well as a profound loss of public confidence in the federal bureaucracy. President Trump, who included bureaucrats as part of the “Washington Establishment” he ran against, has already threatened government agencies with severe “reductions in force.” The leak scandal is likely to exacerbate the mutual hostility.
A prominent concern voiced by Republican operatives during the 2016 presidential campaign addressed the Clintons’ past breaches of security. In 1994, for instance, Bill Clinton’s White House staff illegally procured raw FBI files of close to a thousand Republicans (the list including those on Clinton’s “enemies list,” Bob Dole [R., Kans.] charged in 1996). At the same time, a special section of the IRS was assigned to audit hundreds of Clinton critics (including this writer).
In 2016, Republicans warned that a Clinton victory would grant her access to the massive records that the National Security Agency today maintains on all Americans.
This fear is not unfounded: When former senior NSA official and whistleblower Thomas Drake revealed the NSA’s warrantless surveillance of innocent civilians, he was hounded for years by the FBI without ever being charged. Drake tells The Wanderer that the NSA’s data trove invites a “Turnkey Tyranny,” providing any power-hungry chief executive with all means necessary to establish a domestic version of Big Brother’s Thought Police.
(At press time, WikiLeaks released new documents allegedly revealing that the Central Intelligence Agency uses methods similar to those of the NSA.)
After Donald Trump’s victory, anonymous “civil servants” began providing highly classified government intercepts of telephone conversations and other related information to friendly media. The first “leaks” appeared to be designed to damage Trump, but soon other leaks surfaced that targeted actions of Barack Obama and senior officials in his administration.
These events call to mind a rule articulated some 30 years ago by Senate Majority Howard Baker, who observed that, in political controversies, “that door swings both ways” — in this case, that a tactic employed by one party will eventually boomerang. In the battle of the leaks, both sides have now come out swinging, giving new meaning to the term “secret weapon.”
Unlike 1994, when the Clinton’s White House obtained fewer than a thousand unauthorized FBI files, today the NSA has everything on everybody — every single American. If the bureaucracy’s leak campaign escalates, later revelations could make earlier revelations by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden look like small potatoes.
And while journalists today brag about their “scoops,” the day may well come when insiders turn on the media, divulging the journalists’ personal data, emails, and telephone conversations as well.
After all, that door does swing both ways.
Today major media brazenly advertise for leakers on their websites, offering them a “secure and safe means of providing information.” The battle of the leaks is likely to continue, so, to provide context, The Wanderer asked several men experienced with the issue of sharing highly classified information with the media to share their views.
Cong. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, tells The Wanderer that he is “deeply concerned about ongoing leaks of classified information and the impact it could have on national security.”
“Public disclosure of classified information is not a new problem. Both law enforcement and Congress have a responsibility to address this issue to ensure we protect national security information. Federal law enforcement must investigate these leaks and the Department of Justice must prosecute those who disclose classified information. Congress must also continually review our laws to ensure they provide the tools and legal framework necessary to prevent leaks of sensitive government information,” Chairman Goodlatte says.
Cong. Goodlatte has joined Cong. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, to request that the inspector general for the Justice Department investigate recent classified leaks.
Dr. John Shulz, whose journalism career included senior positions at the Voice of America, the National War College, and Boston University’s College of Communication, says the news media have the ability to handle responsibly even highly classified material.
Shulz tells The Wanderer that “top quality new sources” like The Washington Post and The New York Times are serving the public when they publish such information. “The journalist will honor the ground rules from the source, including the protection of ‘off the record’ information that could, if revealed, harm national security,” he adds.
Doesn’t the leaker have an agenda? “The motive of the leaker is immaterial,” he says, and is not a concern of the journalist. “I don’t care what the leaker’s motives are, only if the information is important and accurate.” The journalist’s job “is to inform the public of what that government is doing, he continues.
“Any government has a right to keep secrets. My job is to gather newsworthy information, and to determine if officials are protecting security information or just their own reputations.”
Dr. Angelo Codevilla, the author of several books on intelligence and national security, served for years on the Senate Intelligence Committee staff before teaching at Boston University’s Center for International Relations. For Codevilla, motive is indeed a major ingredient of the story. “Leaks have only one purpose: advancing the leaker’s interest,” he states bluntly.
And the press? “It has two reasons for publishing them: serving its own purposes, and concurring with the leaker’s purposes.”
The recent leaks are punishable per se, Codevilla says, because they reveal intercepted communications, a felony under 18 U.S. Code § 798 that carries a $10,000 fine and ten years in federal prison.
A Double Sin
Fr. Mark Pilon, former chair of systematic theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, addressed the moral dimension of leaking such highly classified information.
“In the case of an ‘entrusted secret,’ revealed by those who take an oath not to divulge classified material of any sort, the information cannot be leaked without a double sin — violating an oath, and revealing an entrusted secret to another. The gravity of the sin of breaking an oath is always serious sin; and the gravity of revealing the secret depends upon the harm done to the common good as well as to the individual whose secret is violated.”
(On this point, Dr. Codevilla specifies that material is classified Top Secret precisely because revealing it “would cause exceptionally serious harm.”)
“Leaking secret material is in fact a form of theft,” Fr. Pilon continued, “when one reveals classified material simply to do harm to another. Information gathered from a private conversation is the same as private property. It can even entail the duty of restitution for an unjustifiable breach of confidentiality. The issue of lying is covered under the oath, or under the natural duty one has from one’s occupation not to reveal secret information.”
When asked by The Wanderer if those considering a career in intelligence or journalism should avoid those professions, Fr. Pilon says, “that depends. Certainly, someone working for an intelligence agency can legitimately be required to receive leaked information if it relates to national security or to criminal activity affecting the common good.
“But this certainly does not apply to newspaper reporters. If they possess leaked information regarding a crime or criminal operation, their first moral duty is to inform the public authority, just like any other citizen. Today’s journalists seem to have no ethics when it comes to handling this kind of information.”