ANALYSIS: Trump's crackdown on leaks could hide important truths

Our default position should be transparency and openness.

August 6, 2017, 1:27 PM

— -- Not that long ago I criticized the Obama administration for using "national security" as a rationale for cracking down on leaks by folks in the government.

I wrote in a column seven years ago for the National Journal, "As I was sitting with my three grown sons over the post-Thanksgiving weekend watching football at their place ... my oldest son, who served in the Army for five years and was deployed in Iraq for nearly a year and a half, turned to me and asked, 'When as a country did we become a place where the government gets upset when its secrets are revealed but has no problem knowing all our secrets and invading our privacy?'”

It’s a critical question today as well.

Now we are in even more dangerous territory with President Trump and Attorney General Sessions announcing a new concerted effort to crack down on leakers.

This harkens back to President Nixon's efforts in the early 1970s to use White House "plumbers" to stop information leaks. This was after the release of the Pentagon Papers revealed how military and government officials had misled the American people about the Vietnam War.

Yes, revealing secrets that genuinely threaten national security is a concern.

But I have come to believe that our default position should be more openness and transparency -- not only by our government, but in our personal relationships as well.

The only way to rebuild and keep trust is to be open and honest.

Let's take the current situation with President Trump and this White House and explore some key takeaways:

1. Before we start prosecuting leakers, I would like to know, what is the real significance and effect of the leaks on national security concerns? I don't accept the knee-jerk response that any leak is damaging to national security. Americans are not dumb. We can understand an explanation and evaluate its truthfulness. If leaks don't have clear national security concerns, then why is the release of information to the public a threat? Let's be transparent and let the American public decide.

2. The only leak of classified information in the first six months of this presidency which I see as having had a real impact on national security was by President Trump himself, when he revealed to Russians in the Oval Office secret intelligence about ISIS provided to us by our ally, Israel. I know of no other significant leak of classified intelligence. If Sessions wants to crack down on damaging leaks, then start at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

3. The Washington Post published transcripts of phone conversations President Trump had with the heads of Mexico and Australia, and administration officials screamed long and loud about how awful this was and how it would undermine our relationships with foreign leaders. Truly, if you read these transcripts, one is left with the conclusion that it wasn't the leak of these transcripts which damaged our relations, but rather the actual words and actions of this president. Foreign leaders, I am sure, are less worried about leaks than they are about what President Trump is doing and saying.

4. Leaks to The Washington Post, The New York Times and other media outlets and investigative reporting have -- more than any congressional oversight -- held this current administration accountable (such as with the Pentagon Papers and Watergate in past administrations). It is likely that Ret. Gen. Michael Flynn would have never been fired as national security adviser if not for the media publishing leaked information about his activities. Donald Trump Jr. would have never admitted to meeting with Russians but for the press detailing his contacts at Trump Tower.

5. If we had had more leaks and openness in the run-up to the Iraq War as well as during the Flint water scandal, odds are that people would have suffered less damage from both, and accountability to citizens would have been much greater. In Flint, the local, state and federal governments played "hide the ball" throughout, not trusting the public with information that they decided people couldn't handle. Tragedies in both our public and private lives can nearly always be mitigated with more honesty and forthrightness.

I have argued many times that our current mode of politics and governance is broken.

We need to start concentrating less on the ends and more on fixing the means. And the place to begin is by bringing more integrity to all interactions, especially with the government's keeping citizens informed. As I wrote in that National Journal article years ago, this is a bipartisan problem -- both parties withhold information and do their best to crack down on leakers.

Let's end this strategy and begin to rebuild trust in our institutions. Yes, national security is an important concern, but let's celebrate a robust media and not make criminals out of leakers who often serve a higher purpose.

We should start with more openness and transparency among our public officials. We are big boys and girls; we can handle the truth.

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