Saturday, January 07, 2006

To Leak Or Not To Leak?

I'm a little behind on this but I'm going to talk about it anyway: on Wednesday, the New York Times published an editorial attacking the Bush administration for investigating several recent leaks of classified information to news outlets. The paper observes that conscientious insiders need to be able to blow the whistle on government wrongdoing without fear of legal liability, and that reporters shouldn't be held responsible for identifying their sources. After raising some salient points concerning the use of national security as a pretext for conducting business in secret and the differences between the disclosures of Valerie Plame's identity and Bush's warrantless wiretapping program, the editorial concludes: "Illegal spying and torture need to be investigated, not whistle-blowers and newspapers."

Clearly we need to strike some balance between national security prerogatives and the public's right to know about government operations that may compromise their civil liberties, but an unlimited right to leak information with impunity sends the wrong message. While I'm in no position to formulate a legal framework for determining when sources should be prosecuted vs. protected, I do believe that at least two factors should be taken into account: 1) the probable intentions of the leaker/whistleblower and 2) the leak's real-world effects. Ascertaining an informant's motives may not always be possible, but it's difficult to see any rationales behind the spying and torture disclosures other than genuine concern about the programs' morality, legality, and efficacy. The Plame leak, on the other hand, may very well have been an act of revenge against individuals who held legitimate objections to the government's prosecution of the War on Terror. As to point 2), no member of the administration has yet shown (though many have so asserted) how the warrantless wiretapping revelations have adversely affected their ability to fight terrorists. Many on the right have commented that the news of secret torture-prisons abroad has hurt America's image, but we all deserve better than an international image predicated on lies and secrecy.

To be sure, there are circumstances under which leakers should be aggressively pursued. But those decisions need to be based upon the national interest, not on how poorly the leak reflects on the sitting administration.