Leak Culture Protects the Powerful

Attorney General Bill Barr and special prosecutor John Durham are starting to make a lot of people nervous. They have been investigating leaks, including from the highest levels, arising from the Russian collusion hoax.

Now that people formerly at the top, such as former FBI Director Jim Comey and former CIA chief John Brennan are in the crosshairs, the press is beginning to circle the wagons to defend the leakers.

The Washington Post last week published a dubious editorial titled, “Prosecutors investigating intelligence analysts is a dangerous idea.” The New York Times considers these potential crimes from only a few years ago “ancient history,” even as their reporters rifled through Trump’s tax returns from the 1990s.

Government Leakers Are an Epidemic

Almost every week it appears someone with sensitive information is getting busted for leaking to the press.

One recent story details the sufferings of Bryan Paarmann, whose name came out of a Freedom of Information Act request related to the investigation of FBI leaks. According to the Washington Examiner, “the deputy assistant director of the FBI’s international operations division from 2016 to 2017, ‘improperly disclosed court-sealed and law enforcement sensitive information to the media’ in violation of FBI rules.” Although Paarmann violated several laws, he was not prosecuted and simply resigned.

In October 2018,  Natalie Edwards, a senior advisor at the Department of Treasury’s financial crimes unit, was arrested for leaking “suspicious activity reports” related to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. These reports, which are not generated with any due process, are treated with the highest degree of secrecy by banks and the government. Naturally, these formed the basis of a hit job in Buzzfeed. 

In October of last year, Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Henry Frese was arrested on federal charges that he leaked classified information, including details of a foreign country’s weapons systems. He apparently was involved romantically with one of the reporters he leaked to.

The federal prosecutor had strong language about his crimes. “Henry Kyle Frese was entrusted with TOP SECRET information related to the national defense of our country,” said G. Zachary Terwilliger. “Frese allegedly violated that trust, the oath he swore to uphold, and is charged with engaging in dastardly and felonious conduct at the expense of our country . . . This indictment should serve as a clear reminder to all of those similarly entrusted with National Defense Information that unilaterally disclosing such information for personal gain, or that of others, is not selfless or heroic, it is criminal.”

Indeed, it is criminal, but it is hardly shocking. Nearly any report from the Washington, D.C. press corps references leaks, people speaking on condition of deep cover, and other hallmarks of a well-established pipeline for secret information to end up in the news.

The Press and Government Are Allies

The entire Washington, D.C. journalism establishment has a “hand in glove” relationship with government leakers. Every reporter has a stable of sources, gossips, and the like who provide information for various reasons. Some of the motives involve low office politics, but the motive also includes the arrogant belief that they can undermine the actions of elected officials, particularly in the case of President Trump.

The government has a process for releasing information, including the use of official press secretaries. These sources are subject to rules that protect individual privacy and classified information. While this process is arguably too secretive, some general rules need to exist. If they are to change, such changes should come from our lawmakers.

Once upon a time, it was clear that the “need to know” was only one among several goods, including privacy and safety. There is a reason that “loose lips sink ships” was a mantra during World War II. This patriotic and sensible recognition of the needs of the community is in decline.

In more recent memory, the press’s revelations about electronic surveillance have encouraged international terrorists to change their practices, leaving our defenders in the dark. Beyond national security, it is also obvious why tax records, health records, grand jury proceedings, or FBI investigations should not be leaked in a campaign of character assassination, whether against President Trump or a lowly security guard.

Journalists give their sources a “leaker’s veto,” whereby the selective release of confidential information can harm adversaries or push a particular policy preference that the leaker himself does not have the authority to enact.

Far from being a means of “speaking truth to power,” the chief motive of many leakers—just as with many turncoat spies—consists of the small indignities of office politics, anger at being passed over for promotions, ideological fervor, and simple vanity.

Sometimes leaking is not perpetrated by low-level individuals but by people at the very top. Their leaks are not a protest against power, but better described as an “information operation” by powerful factions within the government. The information is deployed secretly because it is either illegal to disclose officially or too politically costly to do so in the open. Thus, guys like the FBI’s James Comey and Andrew McCabe, the CIA’s John Brennan, and NSA head James Clapper, all leaked extensively different aspects of the Russian collusion investigation before and after Trump’s election. The extent to which any of this was authorized by President Obama is unknown, but much of it was undeniably illegal.

Every Journalist Dreams of Taking Down Nixon 

Some types of leaks are treated as acts of selfless public servants, such as Bradley Manning’s disclosure of highly secret military papers. This interpretation comes from the press’s romanticized view of the effort to take down President Richard Nixon, a figure hated by the nation’s Left with an intensity similar to what is now directed at Trump.  While the putative hero of that escapade was Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s secret source—so-called “Deep Throat”—it turns out this hero of the counterculture was the associate director of the FBI, Mark Felt. 

At the same time, some leakers, like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, have been painted as very dark by the same press. The key difference seems to be whether prominent members of the liberal establishment may be embarrassed.

When Barack Obama aggressively pursued leakers—even subpoenaing records from reporters—the D.C. press corps mostly shrugged. Obama was their darling, and leaks potentially threatened his success. On the other hand, the Trump Administration’s slightly less aggressive pursuit of leakers, particularly in the intelligence community, is now causing serious handwringing at the Washington Post, a paper known for a particularly close relationship with the CIA.

No other industry seems to operate with the same degree of leaking as those who work for the government. It is extremely rare for a private lawyer, for example, to betray client confidences, whether to journalists or otherwise. Similarly, the business press does not appear to depend upon leaks, most of which arguably could create “insider trading” liability.

Instead, reporters in these fields rely on open-source information, eyewitness accounts, press releases, interviews, and the like. By contrast, the government is full of self-important, highly opinionated, and apparently dishonest people, who seem to think little of their oaths to secrecy. They leak a lot, and the political press corps has become highly dependent upon this practice.

While journalists have a job to do, any “profession” that depends upon wrongdoing by others should be suspect. The capital’s political journalists, as a group, think nothing of using ill-gotten information to sell a newspaper, whether that information is recorded, stolen, or classified. The Richard Jewell saga is just one among many.

While the police are discouraged from violating their obligations through the exclusionary rule, and other professions such as law and medicine must follow standards set by professional regulatory bodies, journalism, in spite of its pretense to being a profession, is both unregulated and cavalier about the laws that govern others. Journalism imagines itself to be a high-minded pursuit of truth to permit democratic decision-making, but when it relies on government leakers, it also encourages theft, violation of fiduciary duties, manipulation of public opinion, and other wrongdoing.

The intersection of journalism and leaking in the nation’s capital, far from being in the service of a pursuit of truth or a check upon powerful interests, is simply another mechanism for the elite to consolidate power. It allows highly placed officials to disregard laws that limit the power of the unelected deep state. It ultimately puts outsiders at the mercy of a cooperating class of elites, who share a common set of interests and a similar worldview. The lives of individuals are often ruined in the process, and national security is damaged because of the confluence of individual vanity and the journalist’s denial of any social obligations higher than a scoop.

Until journalists are treated as partners in crime with the criminal leakers, leaks that advance the interests of the powerful will continue to our collective detriment.

About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, The Journal of Property Rights in Transition, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Content created by the Center for American Greatness, Inc. is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities for our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com.

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.