Like most news junkies in the United States, I was mesmerized yesterday by the leaked transcripts of President Donald Trump phone conversations with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (no, we won’t link to them here). However, I had no business reading those transcripts and unless you are a U.S. government official with the appropriate clearance, neither did you. They should never have been leaked in the first place.
While I bow to no one in my distaste for Donald Trump and I am deathly afraid of what he is doing to the country I love, the leaking in opposition to him is becoming destructive to the values that most people opposing the president hold dear. Too many people have come to conflate leaks with whistleblowing. Make no mistake, this was not whistleblowing. It was gratuitous and damaging leaking and nothing more.
Consider, the three big takeaways from the conversation with Nieto seem to be, first, that Trump was cynical about the importance of the wall he allegedly wants to build along the Mexican border, second, that he is cynical about who will pay for it, and third, that he has contempt for New Hampshire. This is scarcely news. It has already been reported that the administration was considering a funding scheme that would actually have Americans footing the bill. More to the point, the lack of action has made clear that the administration has not been making the wall a priority. And Trump clearly has contempt for the entire country, not just New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, the big takeaway from the conversation with Turnbull was that Trump blew his stack and said that talking with Turnbull was unpleasant (even worse than talking with Russian President Vladimir Putin). These facts were reported months ago. In other words, there was no news value to these leaks.
Unjustified leaks like this, and many of the others that have been plaguing the administration, ultimately undercut good governance and accountability. Faced with leaks, the automatic reaction of government is to tighten up control of information. When I worked as an intelligence analyst for the State Department in the early 1990s, a leak of the readouts of presidential conversations led to restriction of access to those readouts. As a result, we working-level people were less able to do our job. Later something similar happened when I worked for the CIA and, again, access was tightened and it became harder to do the work of government. More recently, the Manning leaks led the State Department to sharply restrict the number of people outside of the department who could read diplomatic cables. This was a marked reversal of the post-9/11 presumption that information should be shared across government agencies. The government is now less able to communicate and share information with itself (which is, incidentally, one of the original stated aims of Julian Assange, who wrote in 2006 that he seeks the “total annihilation of the current US regime”).
I have also heard from former State Department colleagues that post-Manning, fewer things are being written down in cables. It is much harder to leak something that is never recorded in the first place. It is also much harder to hold government officials accountable for something that is never written down. It is impossible to subpoena a non-existent document or to obtain it through the Freedom of Information Act. In future years, historians will not be able to examine the document as they write their histories.
Finally, when foreign leaders speak to an American president, they expect that the conversation will be held in confidence. Diplomacy has always worked best when conducted in private with only the final result rolled out to the public. It is not good for the U.S. government to have a reputation as a not being able to keep a secret. Cooperation with friends and managing challenging relationships with adversaries is more difficult than it needs to be if there is not some fundamental level of trust. Discretion becomes even more important when the diplomacy is at the level of the head of government or the head of state. For such leaders, everything is personal. Embarrass a foreign leader or simply demonstrate to him or her that the U.S. government cannot be trusted and that foreign leader will not forget it. Diplomacy will be affected far into the future.
It is important to keep these considerations in mind when dealing with the Trump administration. This president needs to be held accountable, but the methods for doing that must be carefully chosen so as not to do damage to the country itself. Claims that “the people have a right to know” go only so far and, when it comes to lawfully classified information, are simply factually incorrect. A doctrinaire insistence on an untrammeled public right to immediately know everything done by the government is just as destructive as Trump is. If Americans want a government that works, a government that keeps them safe, a government that can play a responsible role on the world stage, and a government that can keep its word to those who foreign friends who want to secretly help us, there must be secrets.
Those opposing Trump should keep their zealotry in check lest they destroy the country they seek to save.
Dr. Mark Stout directs graduate programs in Global Security Studies and Intelligence at Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences Advanced Academic Programs in Washington, DC. He has previously worked for the Department of the Army, the State Department, the CIA, and the Institute for Defense Analyses.
Image: Acid the Meme Machine, CC