National defense poses a particularly difficult dilemma in a society that values free speech. On the one hand, most of the polity wants transparency, accountability and honesty, but on the other hand a free flow of information is inimical to secuirty. Few cases demonstrate this as well as the Wikileaks imbroglio, but overshadowed by the publicity surrounding the benighted principals in the case is the fact that plenty of damage is also the result of leaks by the government itself.
Now, with much fanfare Attorney General Eric Holder has announced the appointment of two prosecutors to investigate leaks emanating from the government. Those who are familiar with television crime programs will recognize these appointments as the federal equivalent of a police department’s Internal Affairs Division, whose responsibilities include the investigation of official misconduct. Although most drama is exaggerated, the dislike of IA operations is not hyperbole, and any cooperation is usually the result of fear: information is uncovered only because of a perceived threat of prosecution and often in exchange for some level of immunity. If it goes anywhere, the investigation of security leaks will not be much different.
As with most things, determining what has happened or who has done it is not as instructive as discovering why. People in government reveal secrets for a number of reasons, and the least prevalent is a deep-seated and fundamental belief that all information should be unfettered. There are plenty of naive or overzealous idealists with those views, but they have rarely been the inside source of sensitive information, mostly because they don’t serve or remain in positions where such information is available. Nor is much information divulged because someone has paid for it or because the leak is part of a plan to undermine the integrity of American security.
Instead, leaks most often occur during the playing of petty political and bureaucratic games, and that means that the majority of detructive information is leaked by people whose salaries are paid with your tax money. Because nearly all legislation and thus expenditure requires agreement between the executive and legislative branches, a very large number of bureaucrats are working on funding and policy issues at any time. When staff officers—in the Pentagon or in the Congress or in the White House—have sought to gain some advantage they have frequently leaked information in an attempt to mobilize support for their own positions and to generate opposition to others’.
In Great Britain, although the public is not complacent about the existence of information about which it has no knowledge, there is an Official Secrets Act that imposes harsh penalties for leaks. But Britain also has a parliamentary system with strong parties, and concensus is much easier to forge than in the United States, where political parties are weak, the system puts a premium on the popular strength and checkbook of individual politicians, and the way in which we do legislative business is by counting coup.
If this seems like the American way, that’s because it has come to be the American way, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do. Although many leaks don’t do much immediate harm, the attitude that winning is everything and the people be damned is a clear and present danger, and the people rightly ought to be indignant about it.