Opinion

Thank God for the leakers

This torrent of leaks is bad. The alternative is so much worse.

It's springtime for leakers!

The Trump administration is far and away the leakiest White House in modern American history. And consequently, from high-ranking officials and White House staffers on down through Republicans in Congress to the legion of pro-Trump and anti-anti-Trump cheerleaders in the media, those looking to defend our hapless, bumbling, state-secret-divulging commander in chief invariably respond to the latest news story about the president's stupefying incompetence by screaming: "But what about the leaks?!?!"

What about the leaks indeed.

I'm not immune to this. After Michael Flynn was forced out as Trump's national security adviser, I wrote an angry column about the leaks that brought him down. Anonymous sources from within the intelligence community had inspired a series of stories in the press that had forced out a senior administration official in a matter of days. This was unorthodox. Dangerous. Following Eli Lake of Bloomberg News, I even called it an example of "police state" tactics.

I wasn't wrong. This isn't the way politics in a liberal democracy is supposed to work. Bureaucrats privy to clandestine information should not be allowed to pursue political vendettas while hiding behind a cloak of anonymity. That's why leaking confidential information is a serious crime, and in a government job leaking any information without permission is in most cases a fireable offense.

But you know what else isn't supposed to happen in a liberal democracy? A man completely lacking in the knowledge, character, and judgment required to competently serve as president getting elected. Yet that is precisely what has happened in the United States. Due to a confluence of unlikely events, Donald Trump has ended up in the White House. And that presents members of the intelligence community with a unique — and uniquely perilous — situation.

Place yourself for a moment in their shoes. You've devoted your life to serving your country as an employee of the NSA or CIA, cultivating contacts with foreign sources of information, analyzing raw intelligence, preparing briefing materials for a series of presidents and their senior advisers. You take your job very seriously. And now you're presented with a president who treats confidential information with reckless disregard and demonstrates gross negligence in managing it. This raises a grave possibility — namely, that the man occupying the Oval Office cannot be trusted with the intelligence you are tasked to provide him.

If you do your job as intended, you risk harming your country. The incompetent commander in chief might divulge highly sensitive intelligence to a foreign adversary, not for any strategic reason or after consultation with top advisers, but merely as a boast intended to gratify his insatiable vanity. Or he might inadvertently reveal just enough to enable the foreign adversary to infer the source of the information, which may well compromise the intelligence asset, opening the individual or faction within a foreign government to retribution, or convincing the asset to cease sharing vital information in the future. This need only happen a handful of times before assets around the world begin to clam up, reasonably fearing that the U.S. can no longer be trusted to safeguard secrets and those who share them.

What to do in response? One option is what we're seeing from an alarmingly large number of people: You can leak word of the president's negligence and untrustworthiness to the news media, in the hope that the bad press will either convince the president to change his behavior or persuade growing numbers of Americans to push their representatives to remove the president from office (through impeachment or Section 4 of the 25th Amendment).

That's bad. But you know what would be far worse? The scenario my colleague Noah Millman lays out in his chilling column about the prospect of a de facto coup in which the military men surrounding the president (his secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security, and national security adviser) violate "the chain of command by cordoning off the president from information that he properly needs to make informed decisions." In such a scenario, a key tenet of liberal democratic government — civilian control of the military — would be jettisoned, with the elected president of the United States acting as a figurehead hemmed in by a coterie of generals who make and execute policy.

No one should be cheered that damaging leaks by anonymous sources in the intelligence community are becoming increasingly common. But the pathetic and infuriating fact is that the U.S. now has a president whose words and deeds pose a serious, active threat to the wellbeing of our own country. That makes ours an extraordinary time — and extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures.

Let's just hope they don't become any more extraordinary.

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