The Trump administration was out in force Friday decrying the “culture of leaks,” proclaiming its potential to do terrible damage to our national security. Unlike many other things this administration says and does, that verbiage is absolutely standard whining from the party in power, whomever it is. Remember when President Obama was the most imminent threat to press freedom thanks to his administration’s aggressive prosecution of leakers and the reporters who covered them?
Repeatedly over the years since 9/11, press watchdogs and whistleblower organizations have raised the alarm over the trend toward criminalizing leaks, both in rhetoric and through prosecutions. The Trump administration has, as it has done in policy areas from immigration enforcement to NATO burden-sharing, taken an under-recognized current of policy and turned it into the central pillar of policy.
It is unprecedented, particularly when the nation is not mobilized for war, to argue as Attorney General Jeff Sessions did Friday that the media does not have an “unlimited” role in American society. We know that the nation is not at war, by the way, because the State Department told us this week that we don’t need Congress to debate and vote on an authorization for the use of force in Syria or elsewhere. Yet, this administration seems to have spent much of its first six months exploring how to limit the media—from the White House examining options to make it easier to sue reporters for libel, to President Trump reportedly urging then-FBI Director James Comey to jail journalists who publish classified information, to threats that critical coverage could prompt the Department of Justice to block media company mergers.
The scope and sensitivity of the latest White House leaks—transcripts of President Trump’s conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia—may be unprecedented, a boon to late-night comics and a disaster for novelists who must try to compete in writing “realistic” dialogue. And it is certainly possible to point to past leaks that had dire consequences for U.S. interests writ large and for particular individuals who serve or work with our government, from careers curtailed to spies tortured and killed. These leaks are not that, though you’d never know it from the florid rhetoric. They are certainly sensational and embarrassing for the American public. But foreign governments already knew this reality well—the just transcripts provided a confirmation, a chance to laugh at what is a daily reality for key U.S. partners.
Here’s the other thing. Sometimes it seems as if Trump has suspended the laws of politics. But the natural law of leaking is immutable. Leaks are politics by other means. Leaks happen for some combination of three reasons: to change policy, to change personnel, or for the self-aggrandizement of the leaker. Threats of prosecution work best on the third motive, and they work best against individuals lodged in the bureaucracy who have careers to lose. But what is the threat of prosecution against the imperative of a president who explicitly sets his political appointees against each other and appears to enjoy watching them use leaks and the media like ancient gladiators used the rope and trident?
From his first January appearance at the Central Intelligence Agency, this president has encouraged the intelligence and national security officials who have the easiest access to sensitive information to believe that they are above the law, and that security is paramount. It is one all-too-short step from watching a president disclose classified information seemingly at random on Twitter (TWTR) or in bilateral meetings to concluding that other officials may use their interpretations of the national interest to do the same. The process of getting that idea back out of the policy process will be long and painful, and it is unlikely to happen through witch hunts of congressional staff and career officials.
But if history is any guide, that may not be where the newly invigorated leak investigations wind up. Remember how Richard Nixon’s “plumbers” were uncovered? A leak investigation.
Heather Hurlburt runs New America’s “New Models of Policy Change” initiative. She has held foreign policy positions in Congress, the State Department and the White House.