Leakers Aren’t Always a President’s Foes
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Earlier this month, President Donald Trump threatened by tweet to investigate Democrats “for all of the leaks of Classified information, and much else, at the Senate level” if they use their new majority in the House to investigate his administration. If the president chooses to make good on this threat, he’s unlikely to be happy with the results.
Trump didn’t indicate the particular leaks he would want investigated, or why he thinks they came from Democrats. Presidents routinely blame disclosures on political opponents, but research suggests that their assumptions are often wrong. Leakers are very likely to be members of their inner circles. Sometimes these disclosures are attempts at personal self-aggrandizement at the expense of the president; at other times they are authorized leaks intended to advance the president’s agenda.
David Pozen, a professor at Columbia Law School, noted that:
Journalists and government insiders have consistently attested that leaking is far more common among those in leadership positions. The ship of state, one often hears, is the only known vessel that leaks from the top — starting, that is, from the White House itself.
Pozen says this hypothesis is borne out by the fact that only a small number of people at the top have access to sensitive information, as was the case with the revelations about the Obama administration’s anti-terrorism policies in David Sanger’s 2012 book “Confront and Conceal.”
James Pfiffner, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, likewise argued in his 1996 book “The Strategic Presidency” that incidents like “leaks to the press will surface in any administration, but as likely as not they will be instigated by the president’s own political appointees.”
My research confirms this. In 2013, I interviewed Treasury spokespeople who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as reporters who covered the Treasury under both administrations. I found that the political appointees selected by both presidents were just as likely to leak damaging information to journalists as the civil servants who past presidents have claimed were trying to thwart them. One Bush Treasury appointee explained that the reason why “lower-level White House people” leaked was to “curry favor with reporters and burnish their own coolness.”
This helps explain why, as Pozen reported, there have only been about 12 criminal cases against leakers in U.S. history. Such investigations would threaten to expose White House staff.
At other times, many so-called leaks are really plants, or releases of sensitive information that serves an administration’s interests. In 2003, for example, the FBI and Justice Department investigated the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. As part of this investigation, it came to light that Bush’s deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, had discussed Plame’s identity with reporters. (If they had remained anonymous, the disclosures would seemingly have benefited the president by casting aspersions on Plame, whose husband had accused the Bush administration of manipulating evidence to make the case for the war in Iraq.) Although neither was convicted of leaking, the imbroglio caused a scandal for the Bush White House and Libby went to prison for obstruction of justice, perjury and lying to investigators. The lesson should not be lost on Trump, who subsequently pardoned Libby.
The incident is a prime example of why Pozen refers to presidents as the “primary architects and beneficiaries” of this system of permissiveness about leaking. It can be better for the White House to plant information than to release it on the record because planting allows the president to issue threats or other messages to both domestic and foreign interlocutors without being forced to publicly justify or answer pesky questions from reporters about classified matters. Pozen said the Obama administration handled its use of drones in Yemen this way. “Formal leak investigations risk exposing top officials’ efforts to manipulate the secrecy rules and marginalize opponents, among other machinations,” he said.
Pozen also argued that the current laxity about leaking helps justify the discretion the executive branch enjoys to make major national security decisions, because the constant leaks about these matters lead the American people and members of Congress to believe there is some transparency at the White House. As a result, he said, tolerating leaks actually makes American presidents more powerful.
So if Trump decides to move forward on his threat to investigate leaks, the investigations could end up ensnaring some of his closest advisers — and make it harder for his staff to employ strategies that ultimately enhance his power.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She previously served in the Obama administration.
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