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Leaks, Tweets, and Real Threats to Democracy

Trump Needs to Get Used to Idea That Leaks are Part of Democracy

In at least one respect, Donald Trump is following in Barack Obama’s footsteps: his hyper-aggressive response to government leaks of information.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds his earpiece as he holds a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (not pictured) at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 10, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

In a tweet this morning, Trump accurately pointed out that leaking – or, as he describes it “even illegal classified leaking” – has been going on in Washington for years. The government is not under an obligation to instantly publish every internal communication. And disclosure, even upon request, can sometimes threaten serious harms, including, for example, to national security. Governments can have good reasons – even an obligation – to keep information secret.

But the government’s interest in secrecy must be balanced against the public’s interests, which include access to information, exposure of wrongdoing, and ensuring governmental accountability.

The balance should normally lean heavily in the public’s interest, but too often, Washington has defaulted towards secrecy. Under Executive Order 13526, which governs classification, information may only be classified when disclosure would produce “identifiable and describable damage” to national security. But anyone who has perused declassified information obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, or many of the documents leaked by Chelsea Manning, will see that the basis for classification is often far from solid.

Obama took some steps to address over-classification. But his administration coupled those measures with an aggressive pursuit of leakers, including an unprecedented number of prosecutions of officials for leaks to the media — nine, compared with a total of three by all previous administrations combined since the passage of the Espionage Act in 1917.

It also established the “Insider Threat Program,” which required government employees to report suspicious activity by colleagues who might be leaking classified information – failure to report could lead to loss of security clearances and criminal charges. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper went even further, issuing a memo barring all unauthorized contact with the press.

How widely these programs were implemented remains unclear, but journalists told Human Rights Watch they believed the stepped up efforts to stop leaks, combined with large-scale government surveillance, made sources more reluctant to talk to the media even about unclassified matters. That meant less information was available to the public, and democracy suffered.

Trump unquestionably has critics within government. Some may be leaking information – including classified information – to the media that is embarrassing or uncomfortable for the president. But his latest obsession with “low-life leakers” who, he warns, “will be caught!” – combined with reports that some Republicans in Congress may want to make it easier to fire federal workers – risks creating a chilling effect within government that will further block the public’s access to information it should know.

Dealing with the fallout from public disclosures of information that doesn’t truly compromise national security is just part of the messy business of governing in a democracy. Trump should get used to it.

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