Just and Unjust Leaks

When to Spill Secrets

Edward Snowden speaking via video link, May 2017 Robert Marchante / Reuters

All governments, all political parties, and all politicians keep secrets and tell lies. Some lie more than others, and those differences are important, but the practice is general. And some lies and secrets may be justified, whereas others may not. Citizens, therefore, need to know the difference between just and unjust secrets and between just and unjust deception before they can decide when it may be justifiable for someone to reveal the secrets or expose the lies—when leaking confidential information, releasing classified documents, or blowing the whistle on misconduct may be in the public interest or, better, in the interest of democratic government. 

Revealing official secrets and lies involves a form of moral risk-taking: whistleblowers may act out of a sense of duty or conscience, but the morality of their actions can be judged only by their fellow citizens, and only after the fact. This is often a difficult judgment to make—and has probably become more difficult in the Trump era.


A quick word about language: “leaker” and “whistleblower” are overlapping terms, but they aren’t synonyms. A leaker, in this context, anonymously reveals information that might embarrass officials or open up the government’s internal workings to unwanted public scrutiny. In Washington, good reporters cultivate sources inside every presidential administration and every Congress and hope for leaks. A whistleblower reveals what she believes to be immoral or illegal official conduct to her bureaucratic superiors or to the public. Certain sorts of whistle-blowing, relating chiefly to mismanagement and corruption, are protected by law; leakers are not protected, nor are whistleblowers who reveal state secrets. 

Before considering the sorts of official deception where the stakes are high and the whistleblower’s decisions and the public’s judgment of them are especially difficult, it’s important to look at the way secrets and lies affect everyday politics, where the dilemmas are simple—and, most of the time, not much is at stake. Consider the many politically engaged

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