Editor's Note: Dr. Terry F. Buss is a fellow of the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration. He wrote this piece exclusively to Tuoi Tre News.
President Donald Trump’s administration is leaking like a sieve.
Nothing is sacred to the leakers: a confidential memo to newly-appointed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from his legal department on the need to control leaks immediately leaked to the press!
In breaking news, CNN reports that last week press secretary Sean Spicer called his eight-person staff to the office to examine their private and government phones to see whether they had leaked information.
Spicer asked them to keep the meeting quiet. The result: the substance of the meeting was leaked!
In America, the people are presumed to have the right to know what their government is up to. Hence the promulgation of whistle-blowing laws that protect people who properly report fraud, waste and abuse to authorities hoping they will do something about it.
But, government has a need to protect information on national security, rights to privacy, health records and proprietary agreements that the public has no right or expectation to know.
Government also should be permitted to engage in most, if not all, daily operations, activities, decision making and policy development without having to contend with information leaks by anonymous or confidential informants.
In the U.S., the president can withhold information from the Congress or the Courts if he/she deems it privileged to the function of the presidency.
So, the question becomes, not whether all leaks should be stopped, but rather what is the proper balance between the public’s right to know and the need for secrecy.
Leaking against Trump
In Trump’s administration, things are deeply unbalanced: anonymous leaks are fast and furious from U.S. intelligence agencies, the civil service, hold-over officials appointed by Obama, and newly-appointed officials by Trump. These groups are collectively known as “The Resistance.”
Cyber-attacks, supported by foreign governments, intelligence services, and malicious actors are also an issue.
Although motivations from anonymous sources are difficult to assess, there are three likely sources, all wishing to force Trump or his staff out of office, or make the country ungovernable, or destroy Trump’s credibility should he try to run for president in 2020.
Officials appointed by Trump are selectively leaking information to make their opponents in the administration look bad, or to make themselves look good.
The firing of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn after only two weeks in office seems to have been the result of White House in-fighting.
In the government itself, permanent civil servants and temporary hold-overs from the Obama administration want to change policy and/or see his government fail.
An anonymous source leaked private telephone conversation transcripts between Trump and the president of Mexico and prime minister of Australia.
Trump’s amended highly controversial immigration policy denying U.S. visas to people from seven terrorist-sponsoring countries was leaked; the document still had handwritten notes in the margins.
The controversial revision of Obamacare was leaked, apparently to allow Obama supporters to mobilize against it at town hall meetings targeting Republican Congressional members.
The Daily Mail reports that the computer hacker group, Anonymous, has threatened to reveal Trump’s affiliation with Russian leadership, expressing that he “will regret the next four years.”
Ironically, tools available to Trump to fight leaks were pioneered by President Obama.
Following leaks of nearly 1 million classified Iraq and Afghan War documents by Army Private Chelsea Manning in 2011, Obama launched the Insider Threat Program to identify government leakers and journalists reporting the information.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, wiretapping, telephone intercepts, surveillance, lie detectors, and document and computer seizures were employed.
Obama also empowered the Justice Department, FBI, National Security Agency (NSA), CIA and others to pursue leakers and reporters through all means necessary.
Obama used the Espionage Act of 1917, typically used to catch spies, to intimidate journalists. James Rosen, a Foxnews reporter, was surveilled by Justice Department agents who were investigating receipt of secret documents about North Korea. A reporter—James Risen—from the NY Times was threatened with jail when he refused to reveal sources of leaks.
Prior to this, catching leakers had been a low priority for presidents with the exception of Richard Nixon of Watergate scandal fame.
Obama imprisoned nine leakers during his tenure under, while the total of prosecutions by all other presidents totaled but three.
So, Obama had set the table for Trump!
Implications for democracy
Leaking against Trump motivated, supported and abetted by an army of aggrieved groups, political opponents, and trouble makers who dislike him, his policies, and his family is unprecedented. Nixon, Johnson and Bush never faced this level of assault even though they were highly controversial.
The main stream media, led by the NY Times and Washington Post, have publically declared their opposition to Trump and are actively seeking to discredit him personally and his policies and decisions specifically. The media is searching high and low for leakers.
News outlets during the first 20 days in office have published reports by insiders lamenting the chaos in the inexperienced Trump White House.
Chris Cillizza, in the NY Times, reports that Trump senior advisor Kellyanne Conway uses her frequent appearances on cable news to communicate with Trump as he often cannot be reached through face-to-face meetings. Cillizza’s article was about Trump’s incompetence and “childlike behavior.”
America could become ungovernable as political forces compete for power without concern for long-term consequences. Obama took great liberties in extending presidential executive power while marginalizing Congress and the Courts.
Trump’s first month in office already exceeded Obama’s executive efforts: immigration, trade, environment, oil pipelines, transgender rights, and coal mining to name a few.
This flurry of activity fueled the already festering political, cultural, racial and economic divisions across the country.
Trump will likely go beyond Obama’s anti-leak efforts as leaks become more intolerable and debilitating.
Trump is now in an all out war with the media: banning news organizations from briefings, not calling on reporters from hostile media outlets, allowing small conservative, web-based reporters greater access, and calling out journalists for reporting fake news.
The media is closing ranks and even boycotting Trump. No doubt even more leaks will follow.
All this could end very badly.