Let me explain. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan recently theorized that the press disclosures about U.S. cyberattacks against Iran and about American drone warfare were leaked by the White House to portray Barack Obama as a decisive wartime president to aid in his re-election. That an administration might leak national security information for political advantage is no fantasy: In 2006, the Los Angeles Times documented several examples of President George W. Bush’s administration leaking classified material to change public sentiment in his favor.
But Noonan’s reductionist thinking fails to explain last month’s messy leak in the underwear bomber plot. That particular leak blew a double agent’s cover, endangering the agent’s life and benefiting the White House in no way.
The problem with attributing political intentions to all leaks is that: 1) often reporters piece a story together independently of The One Big Leaker and 2) sources leak for a variety of reasons. Stephen Hess notes in his 1984 taxonomy that some leakers leak in exchange for a future favor, others to launch trial balloons or settle grudges or inflate their own egos. Some leaks are acts of defiance against the state, such as the embassy cables and war logs released by WikiLeaks. Other, less spectacular leaks of classified material flow out of the Pentagon and other agencies as briefers and sources respond daily to reporters’ queries, as Steven Aftergood explained two weeks ago. Such unauthorized disclosures happen, Aftergood wrote, “not to subvert policy but to explain it, to defend it and to execute it.”
The most significant leaks, especially of state secrets, usually end up igniting policy debates that should have already been burning. The progenitor of this kind of leak is the Pentagon Papers, which placed U.S. intervention in Vietnam in a new context. The December 2005 New York Times account about the National Security Agency’s warrantless interception of thousands of international phone calls, international emails, and other data stands as another example. Published over the objections of the Bush White House and the NSA, the Times coverage by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau inspired Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and others to contemplate the prosecution of the Times and its journalists under the espionage laws. It also rekindled a civil liberties debate that had gone moribund during the early months of the “war on terrorism.”