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Trump says that classified leaks are devastating America. Here’s the real issue with secrets and leaks.

- February 27, 2017
President Trump with FBI Director James B. Comey. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

The continuing explosive revelations about private contacts between Trump administration officials and Russian officers have led to two competing narratives. One sees commentators praising those in the intelligence establishment responsible for the unauthorized disclosures of classified information, whom they see as brave government employees risking punishment to alert their fellow citizens to wrongdoing. The other is deeply skeptical about the leakers, seeing them as part of a deep-state or deliberate campaign by Democratic appointees to sabotage the Trump administration.

Without a public investigation, we are hard pressed to know which assessment is correct. Though leaks create holes in the veil of secrecy, it is essential to recognize that they provide only partial glimpses of what is really going on. Citizens may be misled by selective disclosures, especially if they approach these disclosures blindly, using them to confirm preexisting biases. The secrecy surrounding the intelligence establishment creates dilemmas for democracy because it leads to irresolvable doubt about who has done what, and why.

Secrecy is not a threat to democracy

Some people see secrecy as a threat to democracy, because democracy requires transparency. They’re wrong. Secrecy can benefit democracy when it allows policy measures that are beneficial but would be impossible if carried out under the full glare of public visibility. For example, dealing with drug-related violence involves tackling gangs that operate secretly. This might require the police to use secret informants, unmarked cars and wiretaps. If citizens approve of these covert means in general, they don’t have to know everything about how they are applied in a particular situation. If they did, the information would probably leak back to the criminals, making the policy unworkable.

Secrecy and democracy are not intrinsically opposed, then. Complications arise, however, when citizens want to know what is happening behind the veil of secrecy. This might be because people who have passed behind the veil claim that alarming things are happening. Citizens then have to decide whether to trust that everything is okay behind the veil of secrecy or, alternatively, look for themselves, tearing away its protections. They could, of course, send someone else behind the veil to check on their behalf. But then what should they do if the people they send disagree among themselves on whether wrongdoing has occurred — as overseers in Congress almost always do?

The problem is: Whom do you trust?

In my book, “Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy,” I argue that this uncertainty about who has done what is the true problem that secrecy poses for democracy. Because we can never be entirely certain about what is being done in our name, we are left paralyzed when controversy arises within the secretive worlds of intelligence and law enforcement. Do we trust the elected official or the subordinate who claims to have uncovered wrongdoing? Perhaps the official is genuinely doing the best he or she can under trying and complicated circumstances, whereas the employee is disgruntled and unfair. Or perhaps the employee is the one who is being unfairly caricatured as a saboteur and the elected official is actually guilty of using secrecy to cover up policies and decisions that run contrary to his or her promises and commitments.

This is a new problem

Leaks have been around for a long time, yet this is a far more urgent challenge than it used to be. For much of its history, the United States was isolated from danger and had a small and mostly informal intelligence apparatus. It was not until after the Pearl Harbor attack and, more importantly, the start of the Cold War that the United States built a large-scale intelligence apparatus and accompanying system of secrecy.

Now, instead of occasional conflicts over secrecy, we have high-stakes battles. People have called for less “unnecessary” secrecy and more oversight, but neither addresses the fundamental problem: that secrecy makes it hard to know whom to believe about what is happening behind the veil.

This makes leaking a powerful weapon. It allows those on the inside to expose the doings of public officials. But precisely because they are anonymous, because they generate profitable publicity for news organizations, and because they are so eagerly consumed by a news-hungry public, leaks can help self-interested officials to advance their own narrative, to settle scores and demonize innocents, and to advance a partisan agenda under the guise of selflessness, thwarting the people’s chosen representatives.

These problems might be lessened if citizens became more discerning about leaks. They should ask who benefits from a leak, thinking about the motivations of the leaker and the reporter. They should resist the impulse to praise or blame leaks based on their partisan interests, asking themselves how they would react if the tables were turned. Finally, they should allow time to pass before forming a final judgment, because the initial picture may be misleading or unclear.

Absent such a transformation, we are likely to see ever-growing waves of unauthorized disclosures feeding conspiracy theories and being met with counter-leaks that, intentionally or not, make it even harder for citizens to think clearly about what their representatives are up to behind the veil of secrecy.