Trump's War on Leaks Might Bring More Chaos, Not Less

A chaotic leaks policy could mean the American government either a) loses credibility altogether, or b) has to resort to direct action, such as foreign policy interventions, to maintain its credibility. Both of those outcomes are worrisome. 

The issue of leaks to the press has caused a public stir once again, yet the history, the law and the practical enforcement all seem puzzling. Leaks are supposed to be super-dangerous, or so we are told, yet actual leakers, until recently, were not prosecuted very often. 

To make sense of this puzzle, I read a variety of interesting histories. The most interesting source was “The Leaky Leviathan,” by David E. Pozen of Columbia Law School. 

Pozen stresses that leaks serve the purpose of the federal government more often than not. A survey from the mid-1980s found that 42 percent of surveyed senior government officials felt that it was sometimes appropriate to leak information to the press -- hardly a sign this is intrinsically treasonous behavior. Nor has the federal government moved to stop leaks the way the private sector has.

Sometimes governments trade leaked information to reporters, to curry favor. Other times leaks are used to hurt rivals within the public sphere, or a leak can serve as a trial balloon to test the popularity of an idea. Leaks also may help a president’s Cabinet members build up their own internal empires, which can boost a president’s agenda.

Or the American government may want to inform its people about, say, drone operations in Yemen, but without having to answer questions about the details. In this regard, leaks may substitute for more direct congressional oversight, to the benefit of the executive.

In other words, leaks are part of how the government manages the press and maintains its own popularity. A leak can get a story onto the front page, or if the first leak did not create the right impression, the information flow can be massaged by yet another leak.

Leaks are also a way of threatening other governments, yet without the president putting all of his credibility on the line. For instance, it can be leaked that the national security establishment would be especially unhappy with a further expansion of Israeli West Bank settlements. That sends a message, yet without committing the American government to any particular response if the settlements proceed. Or leaks can signal to foreign terrorists or governments that we know what they are up to.

Of course, many leaks are unwelcome, such as when national security confidences are disclosed. Given that reality, why haven’t American governments worked harder to prosecute unwelcome leaks and leakers? 

Well, if that policy were pursued successfully, the only leaks that would occur would be “approved” or government-intended leaks, and everyone would figure this out. The government could no longer use leaks as a way of providing information or making threats in a distanced manner with plausible deniability. 

Leak-receiving media outlets would feel more like pawns, and they would distance themselves from the leaking administration. Leaks would end up not being so different from announcements, which would counter the very purpose of leaks. And so whistle-blowing leaks and also security-diminishing leaks get pulled into the mix and tolerated to some degree.

So why then did the Obama administration suddenly prosecute (some) leaks so vigorously? Was Obama more of a control freak than previous presidents? 

Maybe, but an alternative and deeper structural explanation might apply. To the extent politics is ruled by strictly partisan considerations, a careful managing and massaging of the information flow to the outside world may be less important than unity within the government. So allowing random leaks would be less useful, and it is then less costly for a president to come down harder on some of the more dangerous leakers.

Now enter Donald Trump. Trump may not be explicitly aware of all the strategic angles, but his anti-leak polemics signify a few things, all consistent with the broader thrust of his presidency. 

First, an anti-leaks campaign is a further symbol that direct rhetoric, including on Twitter, will be a major management tool, for better or worse. Second, it signals that the Trump administration is especially uninterested in generating a positive flow of information through the usual mainstream media sources. Third, both the standing bureaucracy and the so-called “Deep State” still have leaks at their disposal. 

We’re likely to continue to have a president (and immediate staff) pursuing one communications strategy, while the government as a whole remains in the more traditional mode of managing leaks for strategic purposes. But when those two strategies are combined, the most likely result will be informational chaos and a diminution of credibility. 

In contrast, Obama’s former chief of staff William Daley had noted: “I’m all for leaking when it’s organized.”

Practically speaking, how might this all matter? A chaotic leaks policy could mean the American government either a) loses credibility altogether, or b) has to resort to direct action, such as foreign policy interventions, to maintain its credibility. Both of those outcomes are worrisome. And more generally, the pre-eminence of leaks as an issue is a sign that our executive branch continues to pursue dysfunctional strategies.