How the Trump Administration’s Anti-Leak Crusade Is Likely to Play Out

It’s quite an old story here in Washington. Every administration has had its leakers and every president in my lifetime has demanded the leakers be identified so they could be punished. But punishment has been rare. Why?

My first bit of understanding came from Richard Helms, the then-retired CIA director. He was one of my favorite gurus, a real gentleman, and a man of honor. One day the conversation got to leaks, and he gave a short sermon we’d do well to keep in mind. “Yes,” he said, “I was often instructed to find the source of some very bothersome leak. And we invariably found the leaker.”

Remember that. They invariably found the leaker. And then what? As often as not, then…nothing. No punishment. Why? Because, according to Helms (who had been a newspaperman before going to the intelligence community, so he knew both sides of the ongoing battle), it usually turned out that the leaker was a very high-ranking official, quite often a cabinet secretary.

Helms’ experience tracked with my own. One morning in the early eighties I was at the usual early morning senior staff meeting at State, and Secretary Haig was in high dudgeon about a leak in the morning’s press. I looked around the room wondering which of the twenty-odd officials had done the evil deed. I quickly decided who it was. He had motive (Haig had done something this guy disapproved of), he had opportunity (he knew all about the matter -- we all did) --  it all made perfect sense.

Except he didn’t do it. The leaker was Haig himself. So, as per Helms, no punishment. The big guys get to leak, punishment is for the small people.

One will get you three this will be the pattern in the administration’s anti-leak crusade. Attorney General Sessions said they have already identified three or four leakers. I don’t think he made it up, but it’s interesting that nobody’s leaked their identities, even in a generic way. Are the leakers untouchable, or is the evidence compelling, or are they worker bees of no importance, probably acting on instructions from a big guy, or what? Whatever it may be, odds are that the leakers, or their superiors, will turn out to be big names. And they are leaking for traditional power/personal motives: eliminate competitors, secure jobs, and so forth. Most Washington leakers are in this pool.

The odds-against theory would be ideological. According to this view, the leakers are insiders set on undoing the Trump presidency. They would be Obama holdovers, left in place precisely so that they can sabotage the president and his policies. Most of the time, these ideological motives are American, and the leakers have American motives and ambitions. But there are certainly foreign agents at work inside the government, and while their primary mission is to penetrate key agencies, some of them are “agents of influence,” for whom leaking is part of the tool box.