When you have a leaky faucet, you call a plumber. When your entire house is flooded, you evacuate the premises, assess the damage, and—if you can—salvage what’s left and rebuild a better home.
Leaks of the metaphorical variety aren’t so different, especially in the world of politics, where the occasional drip has become a gushing stream.
The Trump Administration has been the perfect storm for what I consider problematic leaks to run amok. The waters are murky, but the damage runs deep. It will take more than a good plumber to plug the holes already trickling.
But first, it’s important to understand leaks from a broader perspective. To be clear, leaks in general aren’t the problem; it should go without saying that not all leaks are bad. History will tell you as much. As long as there have been regimes and leaders, there have been slips (through intent or ineptitude) exposing the inner-workings of the powerful. Leaks have lead to coups, prosecutions, and good change through growing pains. From the Pentagon Papers to Watergate, they have, at times, strengthened government by shining light on dark deeds, holding our leaders accountable for their mistakes.
Leaks also occur outside of the political realm all the time. From HBO show Game of Throne’s season 7 plot leaks, to tabloids built on “anonymous” sources and strategic album leaks, much of the information we consume gets to us this way without our even realizing it. And yet we know not to trust tabloids completely. We know that song leaks are carefully orchestrated to benefit artists. We also know that big corporations execute strategic PR leaks to control the release of good or bad news to the public before someone else gets to the story first.
All of this is to say, the world of political leaks is just as nuanced as leaks of any other form.
There are four major types of political leaks, and the first is often the most useful: strategic leaks. Like any other entity that wants to own its reputation, Presidential administrations, members of Congress (and their staffers), and even local politicians use leaks so that administrations can get critical messages out to the public. This type of leak occurs when individuals purposefully leak information, but doesn’t want the public to know it was their doing. It happens more than you might think, and it helps the White House, other government entities or campaigns to disseminate information before a journalist can put a negative or misleading spin on it.
Second, there are illegal leaks of highly-classified information by people with an agenda. For an example, you need look no further than Reality Leigh Winner, the 25-year old government contractor recently arrested for leaking classified information. In situations like this, there are two factors to pay attention to: first, the contents of the leak. Classified information, in the wrong hands, can compromise security of the country and of US citizens abroad in countries that may be hostile toward the West. The second factor is motivation. Leaks motivated by an agenda are often used as attacks against a sitting administration, rather than an act of goodwill.
Winner’s leaks exposed top secret insights, compromising national security in the name of an agenda (she is a known supporter of Bernie Sanders and various liberal causes). While being partisan in and of itself is no issue, it’s essential that government workers and contractors take off their partisan hats and recognize the chain of command once an executive is sworn in. If they can’t, they should quit instead of committing a felony. The content of the leak and the motivation of the offender is what differentiates Winner’s leak from that of a whistleblower.
The third type of leaks in politics are deep state leaks, or leaks by unelected bureaucrats to wage war against a sitting administration. This is problematic because it implies that bureaucrats know better than the voters, and that it’s okay to use their influence to undermine a valid presidency. This creates a dangerous culture that verges on democratic crisis. When DC insiders leak as a strategy to weaken elected officials, they generate hysteria of their own devices. Not to sound dramatic, but that’s one way democratic institutions get toppled.
The last type of leak is of the petty kind, and it’s one I’ve seen most often. In my experience, leaks usually take place when someone is trying to get their credentials established with a certain group—usually the press. Sometimes they do it to gain favor with a reporter, or to damage someone or something they oppose. They may hope to establish a relationship where one party owes the other a favor. If a congressional staffer is implicated in bad press coverage later, for example, they will be inoculated.
So, why the flood of non-strategic leaks on the federal level, and why now? Though it’s true that you no longer need a fax machine to leak when a thumb drive or phone call does the trick in mere seconds, technology can in most cases track leaks back to their source with no difficulty, making it an increasingly risky endeavor. Despite this, we’ve been seeing a flood of leaks in recent months.
President Trump has been subjected to the latter three forms of leaks, and I think I have a good idea why. Trump is the quintessential “outsider” President, and as such came into office with very few long standing connections. After winning the presidency to the surprise of many, maybe even himself, he had to put together an ad hoc administration with no established bonds to speak of. Even his most trusted advisors had budding relationships with him at best before being appointed to his cabinet. Without the strong network that most establishment politicians spend decades cultivating, it’s no wonder his administration is vulnerable.
The media, of course, also plays a big role here as the entity that publishes and publicizes leaked information. The mainstream media’s anti-Trump bias is well-documented, incentivizing leaks more than usual. Yes, the press operates under their obligation to the public to expose government wrongdoing, but they have other responsibilities, too: not putting American lives at risk, for one, and to report events honestly. These latter two obligations have been compromised in the fervor to share and promote salacious stories that may or may not be true, and which may or may put the welfare of Americans and our allies at risk.
Already, too many leaked stories have later been proven inaccurate. Journalism experts agree that anonymous sources are far from ideal; moreover, they have led to retractions at major news publications on occasion. Part of this can be attributed to the 24-hour news cycle, which fails to do proper quality assurance in a rush to drive traffic. In an ideal world, news organizations would be extra careful with leaks, double and triple checking their sources and thinking through the potential consequences. Instead, they appear to jump on every anti-Trump sentiment without verification, and are taking a blow to their credibility as a result.
What can be done about leaks, both serious and petty? Crackdowns by the Trump administration could prove an adequate deterrence, but damage has already been done. My hope is that those with the power to leak think twice, and those with the power to listen examine motivations and consequences more carefully.
As it stands, leaks for the right reason will always be a cornerstone of democracy. But weaponized leaks are not a good or legitimate way to stand in opposition to a leader you disagree with—that’s what elections and public discourse are for. Whatever the case, one thing is certain: the plumber is in over his head this time around. Since we can’t rebuild our political system from scratch, ad hoc fortification will just have to do.