If we could trust our elites, then we can all probably agree that leaking is bad. The problem is we cannot trust our elites and the institutions of our democratic society.
Leaks hurt the powers that be, who run our government. Leaks can help our enemies, who wish us ill or harm. Regardless of the leaker’s intentions, the leaked information can take on a life of its own with unintended (positive or negative) consequences.
In my lifetime there have been several cases that illustrate the tension between the legitimate right of a state to maintain secrets in a dangerous world and that same democratic state’s citizens’ rights to transparency into what their agents are doing. A short-list appears at the bottom of this post.
The John Raines’ obituary in the 11/19/17 New York Times describes one such leak, the leakers’ intentions, and the ramifications. John Raines, professor at Temple University, anti-Vietnam war activist, burglar, disseminator of secret information, and a central actor in revealing the falsity of our nation’s mid-century inherent trust in government institutions.
A short list of leaks that demonstrate the tension between secrecy and democracy.
- (1971) Daniel Ellsberg releasing the Pentagon Papers – a Pentagon-sponsored secret history of the US involvement in the Vietnam war, that made clear US policy makers had been lying to the American public for years.
- (1971) Unnamed Anti-war Burglars who broke into a suburban Philadelphia FBI office, copied the files on the FBI’s domestic spying efforts, and revealed the COINTELPRO program that led to the US Senate Church Committee on Foreign and Military Espionage, exposed the J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI’s dirty tricks campaign against US civil rights and anti-war groups and bungling spy efforts, such as colluding with US mafia figures to hire hit men to assassinate Fidel Castro.
- (1972) Watergate. “Deep Throat“, who turned out to be an Deputy Director of the FBI, leaking investigative information to the Washington Post reports Woodward and Bernstein, to further the investigation of President Richard Nixon’s White House “Plumbers” dirty tricks and illegal slush fund activities.
- (1996) Iran-Contra affair was revealed by foreign and domestic leaking of information about the Reagan administration’s secretly transfer of arms for cash with our sworn enemies the Iranians to fund their illegal efforts to support the US-backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
- (2003) Seymour Hersch’s articles on US military prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib, resulting in the exposure of unethical and illegal practices by US military and intelligence agency operatives on our “war on terror”.
- (2005) Warrantless Wiretapes – a subversion of our Fourth Amendment protections against illegal searches and seizures – was revealed by a leaker, who later turned out to be a Justice Dept. official.
- (2011) Chelsea Manning released thousands of documents to Wikileaks, that documented a far higher level of civilian casualties in the war than the Pentagon was acknowledging publicly. This included aerial footage of a US military missile strike and killing of a TV news crew. Deaths the Pentagon had previously denied.
- (2013) Edward Snowden’s leaking National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program information, revealing the breadth of US intelligence agency foreign and domestic electronic eavesdropping.