Are You “Over-Sharing?”
Leaking in the Age of Trump
There are some things that cannot be undone. You cannot un-have a bad experience. You can’t un-lose your virginity. And you cannot un-say something that you have already said. That last one is particularly important for journalists and people in government right now. Our right to freedom of speech needs to be brought back into balance with the responsibilities that come with it.
We live in extraordinary times. Each day, bright, flashing signs indicate that our President may be incompetent, corrupt, compromised by a foreign power, mentally unstable, and/or have authoritarian tendencies. World leaders are responding to this situation in various ways, most of them not positive for the United States. Fake news is now a daily part of our information landscape. Our world feels increasingly chaotic.
As our alarm bells go off, it is reasonable to want to alert others to the dangers that we see. But decades of norms and protocols have developed for how certain information should be handled. Now more than ever, it is important to remind ourselves of, and adhere to, those protocols. This is especially true for the press and those in government, because their words can have the largest impacts.
For many in government, there are already very clear ground rules in place for the disclosure of information. They involve labels like “Confidential,” “Classified,” “Secret,” and “Top Secret.” Those labels have been attached to the information for a reason.
Government employees considering sharing such information online or with the press should think twice. The potential consequences are not just the legal problems related to getting caught. There are potential unintended consequences of that information going beyond its specified reach, including one or more person’s lives being put in danger, a vital relationship with an international ally being damaged, an enemy nation gaining advantage against the United States, terrorists accessing useful information, or other severe and unforeseen problems.
Even information that is not classified and seems very important for the public to know may be more appropriately communicated through different channels. Given the craziness of our current government situation, many public employees may feel that they are being patriotic and serving an essential role in our democracy when they contact the press or Wikileaks with a piece of incriminating evidence about the President or someone in his Administration.
In reality, however, that information, while certainly interesting and essential, may compromise important investigations. when shared publicly For example, if the President, his Administration, or those who were involved in his campaign are guilty or corruption or treason, it may tip them off as to what is currently known about their activities. This can help them have a better sense of what not to lie about when questioned by the FBI or Congress. Such public disclosures therefore do not serve the investigation or the public, even though the information may seem like it is important for everyone to know right away.
A more appropriate way to handle incriminating information related to Donald Trump, his campaign, or his Administration is to contact the team of Independent Prosecutor Robert Mueller, make a detailed record of what the information was, when you disclosed it and to whom, and try to keep some piece of proof of the information so that if they do not take proper action, you can move the information credibly through other channels later.
Law enforcement can be thankless work. When months of hard work has resulted in the apprehension of a suspect, it may be gratifying to tell the press the specifics of the incredible police work that was involved. And the work truly is impressive, it is interesting, and we the public are grateful for it. But the public does not need to know about it. Leave us with some mystery, let your work have a bit of a mystique: tell the press that the arrest was the result of “fantastic police work,” “diligent officers,” and “lots of long hours,” and leave it at that: we don’t need any more detail.
Disclosing the sources and methods provides valuable information for other criminals and terrorists to adjust their tactics to be more effective and avoid being caught. There is little if any benefit to the public knowing exactly what evidence or techniques resulted in the capture of the serial killer, what technology was used to uncover the pedophile ring, or what clues led to the arrest of the terrorists.
The only time that we need to know details about your sources, methods, and creative investigative insights is if you used potentially illegal or unconstitutional tactics. The public needs to know this in order to collectively decide if laws need be expanded to aid law enforcement, or if government power is creeping in ways that need to be put in check.
The field of journalism faces many pressures today. The 24-hour news cycle, the perceived need to be first with the story, the constant flow of information to the public from a range of sources, the demands of corporate media owners, and the periodic major catastrophes where news anchors are placed in the bizarre position of having to discuss the same event for hours on end while saying enough new things to keep people’s attention – all force journalists at times to betray their better instincts.
When people in law enforcement, the intelligence community, other government employees and White House staff become so concerned about something that they feel the need to contact the press, the news media are faced with the additional burden of being the grown-up in the room, exercising the essential judiciousness that their sources are not using regarding what information should or should not actually be passed on to the public. The press can turn an unfortunate indiscretion into a global incident.
An example is the recent terrorist attack on Manchester, England during the Ariana Grande concert. US government sources leaked to the news media photos that had been part of the investigation, as well as the name of the suspect, which British authorities had not yet wanted to disclose. Some US news outlets then included that information in their stories about the event. That decision in this situation caused the British government to temporarily suspend sharing of critical intelligence with the US government related to terrorism. Repeats of such blunders by other US media in future could result in a slow or even a complete stoppage of the vital flow of intelligence to our government.
Journalists should apply similar guidelines to those recommended for law enforcement and government employees. US news media are rightfully protective of their own sources, tot the point where “anonymous sources” have become commonplace in stories about matters of the highest magnitude. But at times, the press seem to have little discretion when it comes to disclosing the methods used by law enforcement, or revealing information that could compromise investigations such as the ones into the Trump campaign.
What can be said here, Mr. President?
Despite your frequent campaign scoldings of Hillary Clinton for e-mailing classified information using a private server, you clearly seem absolutely clueless as to how to handle sensitive information. In the span of two weeks, you shared highly classified information with the Russians – apparently in the course of some off-the-cuff boasting – and then told the not-particularly-stable President of the Philippines that we were stationing two nuclear submarines off the coast of North Korea. You enraged a Middle East ally, Israel, and our other international allies are losing their patience as well– and losing their desire to share vital intelligence with us.
During the campaign, World War II/Korean War veteran and former Virginia Republican Senator John Warner repeated the old military maxim “Loose lips sink ships,” adding for emphasis “got that, Trump?” Mr. President, either you must want to put the idea to the test, or you did NOT get it.
The items below might seem obvious, but the past couple weeks have shown that they must be said. The following are the things that the President of the United States, with extremely rare exceptions, should not say publicly or even to foreign leaders who are not our closest allies and who do not have a need to know:
- Information from your briefings – particularly intelligence briefings
- Information about impending military operations, including troop numbers, troop locations, timing, weapons to be employed, locations of the weapons, or possible ways that the enemy can make the weapons less effective
- Weapons technology
- The nuclear codes
- The identity of the person carrying the “nuclear football”
- Names or other identifying information or locations of US spies, intelligence personnel, Navy SEALs, Special Forces Officers, or similar people in our allies’ forces
- Business secrets
- Military or other key vulnerabilities of the United States or our allies
- Methods used by the United States or our allies for tracking or apprehending terrorists
- Gossip or catty comments about America’s international allies
- Any information that has not been confirmed by a credible source
- Information that others could potentially use to blackmail you, your staff, or those who held high positions in your campaign (you should instead report this information immediately to Independent Prosecutor Robert Mueller)
This is by no means a comprehensive list, and as absurd as it is, it still assumes a minor degree of common sense. Mr. President, you may yet demonstrate your tremendous skill at finding something outrageously inappropriate to do that nobody would have considered a possibility until you did it. Oh hey, here’s one now: apparently it’s been discovered that you have been encouraging other world leaders to contact you on your cell phone rather than on a secure government line. Nice work.
– rob rünt