House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes is outraged over Washington leaks. Just like the cop in "Casablanca" who was "shocked, shocked" to discover gambling in a gambling den.
The California Republican is demanding an investigation of leaks about President Donald Trump's conversations with foreign leaders and more leaks about Trump's cashiered national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Nunes charged, on CBS's "Face the Nation," that the unauthorized disclosures broke the law, and he blamed holdovers from President Barack Obama's administration who are supposedly "burrowed in, perhaps all throughout government."
Nunes, Trump and others who fulminate about leaks should listen to Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Secretary. "Leaks are a problem that every president has complained about," Panetta said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
He could have added that presidents usually find they can do little about them. Trump and Nunes have as much chance of curbing leaks in Washington as I have of beating LeBron James at a game of one-on-one.
A lot of leaks are valuable. They expose bad policies or corruption; remember Watergate? Others lubricate the levers of government. Presidents, including Trump, are as likely to be perpetrators of leaks as victims.
Few leaks violate the law, potential exceptions being those exposing legitimate national security secrets or personal tax returns.
Here's some news for Nunes: When the president insults foreign leaders in private chats, the word will spread. There's little doubt that some of the current leaks are coming from rival factions within the Trump administration.
Some leaks have been harmful. During World War II, for example, the Chicago Tribune clearly indicated after the Battle of Midway that the U.S. had broken the Japanese naval code. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who hated the paper, pressured officials to empanel a federal grand jury, but it decided not to indict.
One of the most insightful recent articles on leaks was by Malcolm Gladwell in the Dec. 19 issue of the New Yorker. While comparing two famous leakers, Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and Edward Snowden on government surveillance after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Gladwell explained why leaks are central to the governing process:
"The relationship between the government and the press — between the source of leaks and the beneficiary of leaks — is symbiotic. Governments may make a fuss about how much leaks are harming them. But they need leaks as much as the press does. The legitimacy of government requires sunshine and the practice of governance sometimes requires darkness — and in the face of that contradiction, leaks are a kind of informal workaround."
That, presidents quickly learn, can be used to their advantage. It also can be abused. When the Obama camp leaked details of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, it was nothing worse than self-serving. When Vice President Dick Cheney and others in the administration of President George W. Bush leaked intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction to justify a war against Iraq, the result was cataclysmically destructive.
Gladwell writes of Ellsberg as a noble leaker who selectively exposed government secrets out of his devotion to public service and sense of patriotic duty.
He gave newspapers 43 volumes of a Vietnam War study that he had helped prepare, and which revealed a history of deceit by three presidents. He first sought to get White House officials and senators to make the study public; when that was unsuccessful, he leaked it to The New York Times after deleting the final four volumes dealing with existing diplomatic efforts to negotiate peace. The administration of President Richard Nixon sought to suppress the story — Nixon's initial instinct was to leak defamatory parts about President John F. Kennedy — but the Supreme Court overruled him.
By contrast, Gladwell wrote, Snowden, a former mid-level national security employee, was a "hacker" incensed by pervasive government surveillance, conducted without judicial approval (and later ruled to be illegal by one court and upheld by another). But unlike Ellsberg, Snowden released the information he pilfered indiscriminately, and has been camped out in Russia since 2013.
It's possible to criticize Snowden and still see the value of some his actions. The subject of leaks is rife with inconsistencies. It was Obama's administration, not Reagan's or Bush's or Nixon's, that brought the most cases against leakers, though it moderated its pace in its final years.
The relationship between government and the press is both adversarial and symbiotic. When Trump encouraged the Russian-orchestrated leaks last fall of hacked private emails from Democrats, Nunes, the Intelligence Committee chairman, raised no objections.
Today, with a president who disdains transparency, has an authoritarian streak and is insensitive to the limits of power, leaks are vital.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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