The Secret Sharers

Leaking and Whistle-Blowing in the Trump Era


Is leaking sensitive national security information ever justified? Yes, under rare and exacting circumstances. Does the kind of leaking that has become the new normal during the Trump admin­istration meet those conditions? Almost certainly not, even if it hasn’t imperiled the republic—at least so far. 

Sorting through the complex moral calculus of leaking is precisely in Michael Walzer’s wheelhouse, and there is much to admire about his measured assessment (“Just and Unjust Leaks,” March/April 2018). Walzer is right not to blindly celebrate leaking as some sort of First Amendment sacrament. Yet he does not go far enough in parsing the different types of leaks. 

Walzer distinguishes between a “leaker,” who “anonymously reveals information that might embarrass officials or open up the government’s internal workings to unwanted public scrutiny,” and a “whistleblower,” who “reveals what she believes to be immoral or illegal official conduct to her bureaucratic superiors or to the public.” From the point of view of national security professionals, however, there is a world of difference between whistle-blowing to one’s bureaucratic superiors and whistle-blowing to the public. The former is permitted and even encouraged in a healthy bureaucracy. Whistle-blowing to the public, on the other hand, is a punishable violation of professional standards or even criminal law. It should not be differentiated from leaking. 

To be sure, officially sanctioned whistle-blowing still entails risks. If one blows the whistle on legitimate behavior, the whistleblower could lose credibility or even her job. And whistle-blowing might not accomplish anything if the chain of command itself is corrupt. Appealing through proper channels is no guarantee that the outcome will be optimal, but it is preferable to the alter­native, which sets up the individual as a law unto herself. 

A second problem with Walzer’s typology is that his definition of leaking excludes many of the day-to-day exchanges that take place between the government and the media. For Walzer, an anonymous quote does not count as a leak

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