Sanford J. Ungar is director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University and a Lumina Foundation Fellow.
Leaks and leakers. Just the words seem to have a negative aura about them, with unappealing connotations of plumbing problems and weak bladders. Surely, they are a scourge that disgraces journalism and weakens government.
When President Trump wants to discredit the FBI director he fired, James B. Comey, who acknowledged in Senate testimony that he had shared with a friend private memoranda he wrote about his strange meetings with the president, it’s easy: “He’s a leaker,” said Trump, his voice dripping with contempt.
When Jeff Sessions, who, perhaps foolishly, gave up his safe Senate seat from Alabama to become Trump’s attorney general, finds himself facing a barrage of unfair criticism from his patron and is desperately seeking a way back into his good graces, there is a simple path: promise to be relentless about tracking down and punishing the evil leakers. “This culture of leaking must stop,” said Sessionsindignantly.
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What right-thinking American could not be repelled by these appalling people and practices?
But wait a minute. What if leaks — more attractively labeled “inside information” or “revelations” — and leakers — more euphemistically called “sources” or “whistleblowers” — are part of the lifeblood of American democracy, one of the few reliable ways we find out what is actually going on?
Anyone practicing real journalism in this country (and quite a few other places, too) learns right away that he or she cannot necessarily count on government always to offer the full, or truthful, story about what it is doing. The same holds for business, the nonprofit sector, even the art world and sometimes journalistic institutions themselves. The job is not to be a simple transcriber, and leaks are one vehicle for getting things right.
I remember vividly the advice a wise and experienced FBI agent gave me when I was writing a book about the bureau: “Be careful not to get a bad case of the ‘for-reals,’ ” he said. In other words, do not assume that everything happens according to the rulebook or the way officials say it does.
Indeed, during that project and many others, I benefited professionally from leaks, admittedly some more reliable than others. I sometimes made use of those that checked out, fully realizing that I might be denounced by the same people who had given me the information. That’s what they had to do to protect themselves from discovery.
Not all leaks are equal, of course. Many leakers have patriotic motivations, but one must always weigh the intentions of the leaker and deploy a healthy dose of common sense to avoid the risk of being burned or used by a source.
When it comes to national security information, which is what Sessions seems to be particularly worked up about, the record is far different from what he would have us believe. Many well-respected editors and reporters in the mainstream media, including The Post, have consulted with officials before publishing sensitive stories, and they have sometimes held them back from publication, rather than risk damage to national security.
And there are few, if any, examples where it can be shown that leaks did any genuine harm, beyond embarrassment and awkwardness for politicians or policy makers. Not the stories of the United States cracking the Japanese military’s codes early in World War II. Or reports of training Cuban exiles for the Bay of Pigs invasion. Or the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Or more recent revelations of electronic espionage by the U.S. government.
In fact, despite the tougher stance on the issue begun under the Obama administration, to this day the federal government has never tried to prosecute a reporter for revealing classified information.
Is it useful, on balance, for us to learn from secret transcripts that Trump bullied the leaders of Mexico and Australia in phone conversations with them shortly after taking office? Different people may draw the line in different places, but I would say that’s an easy “yes” and wish for more such transcripts to be leaked — if only to give us an alternative to the president’s self-promoting tweets as a source of information about current U.S. policy.
As for Sessions’s boasts that it will be easy to identify the leakers, skepticism is in order. “Leak investigations” are often long, frustrating dead-ends. That is why J. Edgar Hoover, who usually wasn’t shy about abusing his power during his 48 years running the FBI, was famously reluctant to take on leakers. Hoover didn’t like to fail, and he knew that quite often the source of a national security leak could be the president himself.
The Trump administration is not the first to make the empty threat of leak investigations. When things got bad 45 years ago, President Richard Nixon and his Justice Department tried that, too, but it didn’t work. It intimidated some and struck fear in the hearts of others, but so far as we know, it did not prevent a single leak. Most citizens, including those who serve in Congress, realize the importance of preserving a free press and their own ability to speak (and yes, sometimes leak) freely, even at the risk of displeasing a president and his beleaguered attorney general.
Moscow, Russia, July 31, 2017 – The main building of the Russian Foreign Ministry.President Vladimir Putin on July 30 said the United States would have to cut 755 diplomatic staff in Russia and warned of a prolonged gridlock in its ties after the US Congress backed new sanctions against the Kremlin. (Photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
On the streets of Moscow things look pretty much the same as they did before the first round of sanctions were levied to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine and the Crimea: no shortages in the shops, prices in restaurants actually lower than before sanctions went into effect. Head to the outskirts of the big cites into the countryside, and aside from the occasional oligarch’s outrageously lavish dacha, you see poverty. Just as you would have seen ten, 20, 50 years ago. These are the people who never benefitted from the hey days of high oil prices and whose lives, under sanctions, also haven’t changed.
That’s because there’s been no trickle-down in post-Soviet Russian economy: those in leadership positions when Communism collapsed took what they could with permission; others took what was in front of them and sold it where they could find a market. That includes objectionable good such as weapons and uranium to objectionable clients.
As economist Andrey Movchan, director of the Economic Policy Program at Carnegie Moscow Center writes in his report, Decline, Not Collapse: The Bleak Prospects for Russia’s Economy, “By the time Russian President Vladimir Putin took power in 2000, the majority of key assets were owned either by the state or by a small group of private individuals who had obtained these assets from the state in return for political obedience and loyalty.” Movchan and I met in Moscow recently to discuss the impact of sanctions and the future of the Russian economy for this blog.
Operating Without Money
It helps to remember that not only is Russia a country that can endure hardships like no other, but it is also accustomed to operating without money. Favors and personal privilege are equally valuable, if not more desirable, commodities with which to barter. And even under Communism everyone, including the government, depended on the black market for goods and services. It was the closet things Soviet Russia had to Capitalism, during a time when private enterprise could get you sent to a gulag if you were lucky, or to a firing squad if you were not. So it should come as no shock that those best able to handle the overnight shift in economic ideology were the black marketeers who had the experience of private enterprise and lacked the average Russian’s inbred fear of acting on his or her own.
Moscow, Russia, July 31, 2017 – A view overlooking Red Square and beyond, showing the Kremlin, the History Museum and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (gold dome). (Photo credit: MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
There followed in the 1990s a transition period consisting of a liberal economy but no governance. Russia was a real wild east. Then-President Boris Yeltsin’s inability to manage the government led to stalemate in the state Duma (Parliament) and wanton disorder in the business world, involving not just corruption but sometimes murder. Putin’s ascent to power brought much of the mayhem to a halt and regained state control of the country’s oil production and trading business, which had been lost during the 1990s, under what then passed for “privatization.” Putin, writes Movchan, “arrested the rebellious oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003, nationalized his Yukos oil company, and ensured all other oligarchs got the message and would obey.”
By 2008, Movchan says, up to 70% of the Russian budget either directly or indirectly consisted of hydrocarbon export revenues. By 2013, no more than 10% of the country’s GDP came from the independent private sector or non-mineral-resource production. Meanwhile, Movchan writes, though inflation had been running at 6.5% in 2013 and GDP growth did not exceed 1.3%, real wages – thanks to Russia’s social policy which Movchan calls “reckless” – exceeded 11.4%.
“This was also the period when many people sold their businesses to the state. Took their money and went abroad,” Movchan claims. “That meant that the state controlled more than 70% of businesses – more than under (the last Communist leader) Mikhail Gorbachev, when the state control was 60%,” he says. “Today maybe 25% of GDP is in the hands of the private sector.”
Movchan says he’s loathe to accept state-generated statistics on the economy at face value because, he writes, “more than 30% of it is classified as ‘secret’. It is generally believed that the classified items in the budget are used to finance the military-industrial complex and security agencies, but there is indirect evidence suggesting that these funds may have many other uses as well. They may range from financing ‘friends of Russia’ abroad, to closing gaps in the balance of state-controlled companies and allowing top officials to make personal purchases.” Opacity, it seems, is a national characteristic rather than a fabricated Soviet-era construction.