The Truth About Government Information Leaks
The supposedly secret US government documents now circulating online raise questions about spying on allies like Israel and South Korea, and the conflict in Ukraine. But are they authentic?
Public servants face difficult choices when their views differ from those of their employers. Oaths, codes of conduct and whistleblower processes may guide them in their decisions.
The government’s latest leak reportedly offers a snapshot of how the intelligence community sees the world, including the war in Ukraine, China’s influence on global technology, and terrorism. But the document also contains a few other nuggets that aren’t quite as benign. For example, one paragraph mentions the growing use of 5G services across the globe as a possible risk for satellite interference that could interrupt commercial and military communications.
NPR’s Jenna McLaughlin has more on this and other details surrounding the latest leaks. And to add to the intrigue, these documents were spotted on a social media platform that is mostly used for gaming.
Regardless of the saber-rattling from Trump and his team, it is still illegal to disclose information classified as such without clearance from a designated official. But even if it’s legal, the harm caused by the disclosure may be substantial. This is particularly true when personal information is involved. For instance, if Janet’s private information is leaked, she might suffer from severe emotional and financial damage.
It’s a crime for US public servants to disclose information that affects national security, with punishment ranging from up to five years in prison or a fine. The statute is designed to prevent disclosures that injure the US or help a foreign country.
The Pentagon is reevaluating its methods after the leaks of supposedly secret intelligence assessments. Those assessments appear to be real, but it’s not clear how many people have seen them. Experts say that this is a serious threat to Washington’s ability to gather intelligence from allies and from enemies.
Some whistle-blowers reveal classified information to challenge a policy or operation they think is wrong. But others may talk about semi-secret operations to boost their standing in the government or among their fellow officials. They can also argue that they have a responsibility to inform the public of what their leaders are doing. In all cases, the motivation of a public servant can be complicated.
In a democracy, public servants are bound by oaths and codes of conduct that impose ethical constraints. When their views and those of the government diverge significantly, a small number may make the choice to leak sensitive information. They could resign their jobs or pursue the often weak whistleblower process, but the most radical among them may choose to share that information with the media and the public.
Referrals for leak investigations have increased under Trump, according to the Federation of American Scientists, although they don’t always lead to prosecutions. And that uptick is probably partly a result of better reporting and a renewed effort by the Justice Department to ferret out leakers.
The latest leaks, which reveal the surveillance of communications between the US and its allies, are no doubt embarrassing for the Pentagon but are not likely to endanger anyone outside of the US. The same goes for leaking the details of the CIA’s hacking tools.
As journalists report on information that was supposed to remain confidential, they face a host of ethical questions. They must verify the accuracy of the material, consider how it could be interpreted and how to protect the sources — especially in the age of conspiracy theories, misdirection, deflection, power plays and allegations of “fake news.”
Scholars note that, even if a public servant believes they are being harmed by their superiors’ actions or that the government is violating its own laws, they should exhaust all internal options before leaking to the press. This includes attempting to work through their superiors, ethics or integrity commissioners and union representatives. If they are unable to resolve their concerns, or if they believe the harm is egregious and ongoing, then it may be ethically appropriate to go public with their information.
Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning both made that choice, though their choices drew criticism at the time. As the Trump administration prosecutes its first leakers, it will be interesting to see how their actions are perceived by history.