President Donald Trump called “alleged leaks” from government agencies related to the attack in Manchester “deeply troubling.” He also said the Justice Department should find the “culprits” and prosecute them to the “fullest extent of the law.”
“These leaks have been going on for a long time, and my administration will get to the bottom of this. The leaks of sensitive information pose a grave threat to our national security,” Trump declared.
But from his position as president, Trump has also been reckless with sensitive information. He reportedly informed Russian diplomats about a source with knowledge of Islamic State operations, and he talked to Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte about the location of two United States nuclear submarines.
Trump’s indiscreet conversations—coupled with the constant stream of disclosures of sensitive and non-sensitive information to media from his administration—have combined to create a climate, where agency officials and politicians may feel they need to make an example out of someone in order to reassert control.
The Trump administration could continue President Barack Obama’s policy of zero tolerance for leaks by going after a person currently working in government. The Justice Department could also take out frustration on a symbolic target that is not responsible for Trump’s dysfunction: WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 23. He made sure to work in all the usual buzzwords officials use to scare the public on leaks as he stammered.
“Leaks have become a very significant, uh, played a very significant negative role relative to our national security. The, um, release of information not only undermines confidence in our allies but our ability to maintain secure information that we share with them. It jeopardizes sources and methods that are invaluable to our ability to find out what’s going on and what those threats are.”
“Lives are at stake in many instances, and leaks jeopardize those lives,” Coats added.
Former CIA director John Brennan was more direct and specific, when he testified before the House Intelligence Committee the same day and commented on the leak of information to the press that revealed Trump had spoke to Russian diplomats about a source.
“What I was very concerned about, though, is the subsequent releases of what appears to be classified information purporting to point to the originator of the information, liaison partners. They continue to be very, very damaging leaks, and I find them appalling and they need to be tracked down,” Brennan stated.
“John Brennan was one of the two or three driving forces behind the Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers,” former CIA officer John Kiriakou said. “Donald Trump has already said that he wants to see Ed Snowden exposed to the death penalty when he comes back. Trump has said that leakers are scum, and he includes whistleblowers among them.”
“While this one report may have been leaked illegally, there is a bigger picture here, and that is the continuation under the Trump administration of the Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers.”
Kiriakou is a whistleblower, who confirmed President George W. Bush’s administration had a policy of waterboarding detainees. He became a target of prosecution, pled guilty to confirming the name of an undercover intelligence agent, and served a sentence in prison.
“Trump said late last week that he had spoken to the FBI about the possibility of arresting reporters and charging reporters with espionage for publishing allegedly classified information,” Kiriakou recalled. “It’s a direct assault on the First Amendment. So, I think that this is part of a bigger policy that the administration is pursuing. It’s an extension and advance on the Obama policy.”
There seems to be little confidence in Trump’s ability to run a government, and that fuels the leaks.
As Kiriakou suggested, “He has no understanding of the way a government runs. He has not even a basic understanding of the separation of powers. The guy’s in desperate need of a sixth grade civics course.”
On one hand, lawmakers may want to stay quiet and let leaks continue, especially if the leaks represent important warnings that can help them figure out what demands their utmost attention. Yet, even though leaks are a frequently traded currency in Washington, the scale and extent of leaks will not be tolerated by the political class.
Trump lashed out on Twitter back in February, “Leaking, and even illegal classified leaking, has been a big problem in Washington for years.” He suggested the New York Times and other media organizations must apologize for, in effect, committing acts of journalism.
“The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!” Trump cried.
It was bombastic, a product of an ego that was tired of taking a beating in the press. And yet, the intolerance for leaks was similar to Obama’s intolerance for leaks, even if the former president expressed it in a more measured manner.
At one point, an unnamed Obama administration official said the administration was out for “scalps.”
While White House officials, who speak out of turn, are not necessarily committing a crime unless they reveal classified information, dysfunction in the White House amplifies a frenetic and mad political climate.
The climate becomes the grist for Trump’s first high-profile leaks prosecution, which given statements by the administration will likely come soon.