Are Government Leaks Real?
Government leaks happen when someone discloses secret information to a journalist. Typically, these are whistleblowers who reveal that an agency is violating the law or wasting taxpayer dollars.
This time, the leak was allegedly from an Air National Guard operative accused of sharing classified documents in a chatroom on Discord. The alleged leaks were marked top secret and contained intelligence assessments of US allies and adversaries.
Many of the biggest news stories in recent years have come from leaks. The Pentagon’s mishandling of a contract for military hardware, a White House memo on detainee treatment and a draft Supreme Court decision all began with disclosures to journalists.
Governments have a vested interest in cracking down on leakers, but they also know that it is hard to catch them and that seeking prosecution can lead to more sensitive information being revealed. As a result, they have adopted a nuanced system of informal social controls to supplement — and all but supplant — formal disciplinary systems.
The alleged leaker of the latest document is an Air Force service member who worked on a US base and posted classified material online in an online chat group, according to the Washington Post. He was reportedly a lonely young man who was suspicious of law enforcement and prone to rants about government overreach. His online chat group reportedly included a few dozen friends and acquaintances.
The leaks appear to be real, but experts disagree about how damaging they might be.
The documents that were posted online include maps showing US and NATO military support to Ukraine and information about Russia’s war effort. They show rates of fire for equipment the Pentagon has supplied, among other details useful to Russian commanders.
By “sheer luck,” they did not route directly into the hands of Russian commanders, one former Defense Department official says. But that’s not due to any attempt by the supposed leaker, identified as Jack Teixeira, to mitigate the harm before he shared the information.
The classified documents first surfaced on a platform used for gaming and were then spread to other websites, according to Bellingcat. The Pentagon has referred the matter to the Justice Department, which has confirmed that it’s investigating. The investigation also includes reviewing the Pentagon’s process for distributing such highly sensitive information to determine what could have been done differently.
Public servants owe their employers a duty to work within the confines of their oaths and codes. But when they witness wrongdoing or believe their government is abusing its authority, they may feel the only way to make it right is to break confidentiality and release information. This often comes at significant personal cost.
Examples include Chelsea Manning, a US Army intelligence analyst who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, and Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who jumped a plane to Russia to avoid prosecution for disclosing information about spy programs. Both risked prison and other retaliation to expose what they believed was unethical conduct by their superiors.
It’s not clear whether Reality Winner will face such consequences, but her alleged actions raise questions about how much information is worth the sacrifice of privacy and freedoms to protect it. Some leaks, like the Pentagon Papers in 1971, have changed history and been hailed as heroic. Others have landed their authors in prison for years.