A former study by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee counted 147 separate disclosures of classified information in the nation’s eight leading newspapers in a six-month period alone (Schoenfeld), indicating that intelligence leaks in the press are more common of an occurrence than just a few leaks of “WikiLeaks-Edward-Snowden-like proportions” a few times each year. In reality, leaks are a well-established, informal practice, and the culprits aren’t just the lower level or contracted federal employees like Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning) that so often make the headlines.
James Reston, a former award-winning American journalist for The New York Times, once said: “The ship of state is the only known vessel that leaks from the top.”
Although a less talked about form of leaks, unauthorized disclosures of classified information stemming from senior and high-level government officials are more common practice than the attention they receive in the media. How common? As Schoenfeld states, “Not a day goes by in Washington without government officials sharing inside information with journalists and lobbyists in off-the-record briefings and in private discussions over lunch.”
It’s no secret that these officials share secrets – it’s simply an unspoken truth. In fact, they have quietly admitted to it for decades. According to Pozen, in a survey of current and former senior government officials conducted by Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics in the mid-1980s, nearly 42 percent of respondents indicated that they had, at least once, “felt it appropriate to leak information to the press.”
Although senior government officials routinely criticize the damaged caused by intelligence leaks in the media, some engage in a similar practice of what Pozen deems “pleaks.”
Pozen coins the term “pleaks” – borne from the idea of planted leaks by government officials – to describe what he deems to be leaks of a “quasi-authorized” character. The examples he gives to illustrate “pleaks” include: (1) a White House aide accidentally revealing something to a journalist in the course of a conversation without having cleared those remarks, or (2) a senior official authorized to speak on behalf of an agency about a specific subject reveals something without his or her comments being preapproved. Pozen’s piece takes an unprecedented look at the common arguments made for why the level of leak prosecutions is so low, and debunks many as half-truths. He fills in the gaps in knowledge as to why leak laws are so rarely enforced, claiming that “the status quo, although ritualistically condemned by those in power, has served a wide variety of governmental ends at the same time as it has efficiently kept most disclosures within tolerable bounds.”
What ends do “pleaks” serve? A wide body of literature discusses the various kinds of planted leaks and their benefits. These include the ability to: circumvent career bureaucracy on certain issues; communicate more efficiently and directly with foreign governments without going through formal channels; send signals and warnings to adversaries without going through formal channels; to float trial balloons and gauge public perception to potential policies or actions; to preserve plausible deniability if an initiative is poorly received; and to share information about executive branch activities without officially acknowledging them and, thus, having to respond to questions or accusations about them, among other things (Pozen, Schoenfeld).
In essence, these types of leaks serves as a vital policy and communication tool for members of the government’s upper echelon, allowing them to communicate within our government and to external actors, and often in a more direct and effective manner. In fact, the intrigue, “whiff of illegality,” and promise of authenticity that leaks offer often provides the potential for them to spark more debate about a specific issue than a regular, legal mention of that same issue in the press would. As Pozen states: “In an age of information overload, media fragmentation, and hyperpolarized political discourse, leaks can cut through some of the noise and convey a particularly loud, credible message.”
Richelson acknowledges that certain unauthorized leaks – like the fall 2010 WikiLeaks releases – can undermine legitimate national security activities and interests, but also buys into the idea that a nation without credible leaks is one that “has received an invitation to abuses and cover-ups,” and is ultimately less accountable (Richelson).
However, a government must strike a fine balance between prosecuting those leaks that genuinely harm national security interests, and letting go those that do not. A nation that prosecutes leaks too enthusiastically risks losing the strategic political communication benefits Pozen outlines, and many of those in favor of a world with more stringent enforcement of punishments for leaks likely haven’t considered the implications of a world without them (Richelson). Pozen argues that “criminalizing leaking at the publication stage, as well as the transmission stage, would not only raise difficult First Amendment concerns, but also risk compromising the government’s instrumental use of the press.” As the Obama administration has waged a stricter war on leaks – prosecuting more individuals for unauthorized disclosures of classified information than all other presidents combined – it has experienced the repercussions that come with that battle.
In order for “pleaks” to result in the desired communication benefits, the public must perceive that leaks are pervasive, and that they will learn about (and as a result, accept as credible leaks) both those things that the executive branch wants them to learn, and those that it does not. However, when it appears that enforcement is heightened against those individuals whose leaks harm the administration’s agenda, the leaks lose their purpose, as the public then perceives the leaks that do make it to the press as “pleaks” that the government only wants made public for its benefit.
For example, according to Friedman, President Obama’s high level of prosecutions against leakers “exposed the White House to accusations…that it clamps down on whistleblowing when the disclosures undermine its agenda, but eagerly volunteers anonymous ‘senior administration officials’ for interviews when politically expedient.” What Friedman deems the White House’s inconsistent manner of dealing with counterterrorism and intelligence leaks over the past three-and-a-half years has led members of Congress to call for more equal enforcement across the board. “Regardless of how politically useful these leaks may have been for the president, they have to stop,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told reporters in 2012 when asked about whether the Obama administration had revealed national security secrets to reporters for its own political gain.
Thus, it is argued that the executive branch has, in the past, purposively not pursued leak prosecutions at such an aggressive rate to preserve the communication benefits gained from leaked information planted by government officials, and to maintain the balance described above. Thus, the idealized “leak-free press” is not really the goal that the government should seek. As Pozen concludes, the benefits of leaks are too great, and the costs of constant enforcement too high, for any modern democratic nation to maintain a system that would be effective at plugging all of them. More importantly, plugging all leaks would be detrimental to public discourse around the nation. Instead, the system must accept leaks as a valuable, salient, and effective communication tool and use it to its advantage.
This conclusion once again reflects the commonly held idea across academic literature that the tension between the press’ freedom to publish and the government’s right to protect state secrets in the name of national security will continue to exist – not because there is no solution, but because both sides want it to, for the benefits it provides each party.
Richelson, Jeffrey T. “Intelligence Secrets and Unauthorized Disclosures: Confronting Some Fundamental Issues.” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence 25 (2012): 639-677. Accessed December 6, 2013. doi: 10.1080/08850607.2012.705184.
Schoenfeld, Gabriel. Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010.