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Column: In defense of ‘leakers’

For months, the White House has been alternately exposed and outraged by stories about its inner workings fed to the press by unnamed sources. Ironically, the president himself often prefaces surprising (and many later found to be baseless) statements and claims with, “A lot of people say ...” or “Many people are saying . . .”

Apparently in his mind, he is free of responsibility for spreading these fanciful innuendos because it’s a vague group of unknowns who came up with them and not him. Yet he demands that the sources of press accounts that in almost all cases are borne out by subsequent evidence or testimony be rooted out and prosecuted by Attorney General Sessions.

However, the president’s hypocrisy in attacking the press for protecting so-called “leakers” is greatly overshadowed by the disservice that will be done to the American people should his vendetta succeed in turning off the tap. 

Admittedly, there’s much to be said in support of keeping confidentiality agreements, contractual and otherwise. No doubt breaking such agreements is at the least a troubling sign of distrust and at most an unethical and possibly illegal act. However, when the fecklessness and illegality of the actions and scenarios being revealed far exceed the act of revealing them, moral absolutism no longer serves the cause of justice.

The protection of national security interests — that is, the assets and information that keep our population safe and the international playing field relatively level — deserves to be respected. Yet the most egregious betrayals of such interests in recent history came not from the press but from within the government. Many are shocked and dismayed by individual leakers, government contractor Edward Snowden, army private Chelsea Manning and most recently Reality Winner. Yet their actions are easily matched in shocking crassness of motive by the George W. Bush White House outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. This act endangered both valuable information gathering and the human lives being risked doing it, in the name of political retribution. 

Neither does protection of national security interests include the president’s insistence on secrecy to maintain the element of surprise in his military strategy. First, making a general position known, such as the commitment to find and terminate Osama Bin Laden, doesn’t reveal the specific details or endanger the success of an operation to implement it, such as the Navy Seals’ attack on Bin Laden. Second, such a position of secrecy is only conceivably valid if an actual concrete strategy exists and has been entrusted to the leaders of the armed forces to implement. Thanks to “leaked” information regarding the meetings and confrontational relationship between the president and Pentagon generals, we know that the latter simply isn’t true.

The benefits to the public of press accounts from unnamed sources lay not only in providing otherwise unavailable insights into the culture, intentions, knowledge and capabilities of the White House. They also serve as a check on expending precious government time and treasure on chasing down personal enemies and lulling the American people into false confidence with imaginary strategies. The revelations of inappropriate and disrespectful behavior by White House staff and the president himself don’t denigrate the executive branch or the presidency. On the contrary, by pulling back the curtain on this administration, they are helping to protect those institutions for the future.

Alexandra Piacenza is a Prescott resident and is the immediate past president of Prescott Area Leadership.