Two of our top former intelligence officials have apparently decided to make up for time lost in low-paying jobs — and cash in on their patriotic service.
The most well-known, of course, is former FBI Director James Comey, who has been traveling the country selling his memoirs, playing the martyr, and driving up book sales. Meanwhile, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper signed a contract with CNN to become a TV commentator.
Comey and Clapper are also the public faces of an extremely harmful trend: leaking — without consequence — classified or highly sensitive governmental information.
In May 2017, as FBI director, Comey gave classified information to his friend on the faculty of Columbia Law School, Daniel Richman. Clapper, in January 2017, also during his official post, leaked highly sensitive information about the infamous Steele dossier to CNN.
These seemingly little actions have big effects.
The effectiveness of the executive branch depends to a great degree on secrecy. As The Federalist explains: in foreign policy, where “there frequently are occasions when days, nay, even when hours, are precious,” which “may turn the most favorable tide into a course opposite to our wishes,” secret action is required. Such situations cannot be taken to the public but must sometimes be settled immediately. A barrier from public judgment, secrecy must be protected.
Secrecy is required for prosecuting crimes domestically as well. When the executive’s capacity for secrecy is undermined, we witness the recent spectacle of Oakland, California’s mayor revealing Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s plan for an imminent raid on illegal aliens. Humiliated law enforcement cannot be respected.
Energy in the executive also requires unity in the executive. But unity is impossible when a president mistrusts his officers, who learn that undermining his duly elected authority through leaks is tolerated and even rewarded by a hungry press. Without unity of idea and action, citizens come to treat their government with contempt. They do not make sacrifices for that which is held in contempt — nor are they obedient to it for long.
Exposing elected representatives to undue humiliation through leaks in practice means transferring a large degree of governance to the permanent bureaucratic class. The leaking of President Trump’s highly sensitive if not classified conversations with the presidents of Mexico and Australia says: we the experts will set foreign policy, not some elected representatives. Leaking sensitive or classified information empowers those who should be humble and small — nameless bureaucrats — to satisfy their ambitions and resentments.
This public atmosphere of permissibility presides over an odd, ugly marriage between the bureaucratic state and the press, who discover a new affinity for one another and learn to serve each other.
Much of today’s press would often rather pollute public opinion than become irrelevant or ignored. Leaks of classified information—almost always printed without context, without verification of the motives of their sources, but with the pretense of innocently conveying the facts— are used to stage a drama often created by the press itself, or by those leaking to them. The press thus agitates the public mind without informing it.
One recent example is the leak to The Washington Post about the alleged “leak” in the Oval Office by President Trump to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak regarding U.S. knowledge of an Islamic State terrorist program.
No journalist was present during this meeting. No journalist therefore knew the context of this alleged “leak,” nor whether Trump received something in exchange for this information. Yet in their narrative about the danger to American foreign policy caused by the president, the press made that sharing into world news.
The public atmosphere created by some of our highest ranking public officials is impermissible. Law enforcement should resume vigorously prosecuting leaks of classified or sensitive information, just as the press should be made to think hard before publishing them.
The public should be angered by its circulation and see in it a con: instead of increasing the public’s share in ruling, it is often a means of taking it away.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on May 28, 2018