If the Trump administration were a ship, it would sink quicker than the Titanic. Perhaps never before in history has the White House sprung more leaks in such a short amount of time. Not even during the Watergate fiasco was the media provided with the almost continual barrage of negative inside information about the sitting President which it is experiencing now.
Private conversations in the Oval Office are often turned into newspaper headlines the same day. There also seems to be a never ending stream of revelations about the misadventures of Trump and his minions which could have only been uncovered by sources in the White House or one of our intelligence or law enforcement agencies. I’ll wager that Trump couldn’t even have a bad hair day without that small disaster being mentioned in one media outlet or another.
Concerned that wave after wave of bad news is threatening to instill doubts in even his most fervent supporters, Trump no longer simply accusing the leakers of fabricating “fake news” and providing it to the media outlets. He is now accusing newspapers and TV news operations of making up the stories themselves. When Senator and House committees question leaders of the federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies, many Republican Congressmen appear to be much more interested in what is being done to stop the leaks than the interference of the Russians in our election process or the possibility of Trump campaign members’ collusion with the Russians.
The message is clear on the Republican side: The problem isn’t that the Russians interfered with our Presidential election or that they are still trying to interfere with our democratic process. The problem isn’t that that Trump and/or members of his campaign were possibly in collusion with these Russian efforts. For them the problem is that the leakers in the White House and the intelligence services are making the public aware of what is happening behind closed doors.
They know that Michael Flynn would still be the President’s National Security Advisor had it not been for the leaks. Had it not been for the leaks, they know that while Senate and House committees might be still investigating the Russian hacking and disinformation campaigns, there would be no emphasis on possible collusion with those efforts by Trump’s staff. They also know that a special prosecutor would not have been assigned had it not been for the leaks.
Of course every President has to deal with leaks; it’s just that some have more to hide than others. When Nixon’s White House was plagued by leaks he went after the leakers with a vengeance. Dissatisfied with the efforts of the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate and prosecute those who were secretly providing his administration’s confidential information to the press, Nixon created a Special Investigations Unit in the White House under the direction of John Ehrlichman. This unit, which was called “The Plumbers” because it was charged stopping the leaks, was later responsible for the Watergate break in which lead to Nixon’s downfall. Of course it was the ultimate leaker, “Deep Throat” (many years later revealed to be FBI Associate Director Mark Felt), who was largely responsible for Nixon’s ouster from office and the subsequent jailing of many of White House staff members.
Today Mark Felt is regarded as a hero. To commemorate the significance of Watergate era, a historical marker was erected in 2011 at the underground garage located at 1401 Wilson Boulevard, the location where reporter Bob Woodward often met with Felt in the early morning hours. So why are the present day leakers reviled by Trump and Republican members of Congress as criminals responsible for doing great harm to the nation’s security?
There is one significant difference between Watergate and Russiagate: At the heart of Watergate was a third class burglary. It was Nixon’s attempts to cover up the involvement of his team which ultimately brought him down. At the heart of Russiagate are other more serious crimes of the Russians who were attempting to affect our election and the possible cooperation by Trump and/or his staff. However, much of our knowledge of these crimes comes from the work of our intelligence services. While the information concerning these crimes gained by our intelligence agencies may in themselves not endanger our national security, the release of that information could reveal how our intelligence agents were able to obtain that information, revealing their sources and methods to unfriendly countries like the Russians.
So Trump and the Congressional Republicans have a point when they say that the release of classified material to the press is always a very serious matter. However, government entities have been known to use the classification of material to hide their criminal activity. So aside from the obvious legal implications, what we have is essentially an ethical question: When, if ever, is it ethically (not legally) permissible for individuals to break the law in order to reveal classified information which government officials want to remain hidden from public view for their own selfish purposes? As always in such difficult situations, I submit that it depends on the circumstances involved. One has to weigh the benefits of releasing a piece of classified information against the potential harm that might be done by that release.
Now remember that the President, if he and his staff have nothing to hide, has the power to declassify any piece of classified material, hopefully after close deliberations with the agency which obtained it. However, I think that it fair to say that this is not going to happen with Trump in the Oval Office.
Trump blames our intelligence and counter intelligence agencies for most of the leaks of classified information. Therefore, it is important to understand the sort of people in government have access to the classified information which has been distributed to the press and thus have the ability to release it. First of all, for the most part they are professionals, not political appointees. They have served under Democrats and Republicans and have not shown any bias in the past. As per our nation’s classification protocols, those individuals must have the proper security clearances (Secret or Top Secret, etc.) and just as importantly they must have, “a need to know”. By definition, this means that they are highly trusted individuals with trusted decision making skills. It is also highly likely that they are at least basically aware how the classified material was obtained, even if they don’t have access to the exact details of the sources and methods that were used.
It is also important to note that if and when these individuals release classified information to the press, they are committing a serious crime. By taking that action they are putting their careers and even their personal freedom and the security of their families in jeopardy, so we can be assured that they would not do so without what they believe is sufficient reason. As discussed earlier, they also are very likely to have the information to decide what information can be released without seriously compromising sources and methods which could put lives at risk and/or impede efforts to obtain similar information in the future.
So are these people criminal or heroes? Technically they are criminals based on the narrow definition that those who break the laws of our country are criminals. However, in my book they are heroes because they are taking grave risks to insure that our democracy survives in tact the leadership of unscrupulous individuals who would misuse our intelligence laws to hid unsavory or even treasonous behavior. Because the actions they take on our behalf are technically crimes, we will probably never know their names of these heroes, but we will owe them a great debt of gratitude all the same.