Saturday, April 08, 2006

Bush, leaks and history

The New York Times has a nice perspective piece on Bush's role in leaking classified information.

The important quote for me:

Scott McClellan, the president's spokesman, disputed the charge of a double standard on leaks. "There is a difference between declassifying information in the national interest and the unauthorized disclosure" of national security information, Mr. McClellan said Friday.

I agree. But the key phrases there are "national interest" and what jeopardizes national security.

The president has the power to classify or declassify anything he wants. That makes it legal, but doesn't address whether it's right. If the president improperly classifies illegal information, then the proper thing for someone to do is illegally leak that information. That, in my opinion, is what happened in the cases of the secret CIA prisons and the NSA surveillance. No operational details were released in either instance, so it's hard to see how national security was jeopardized; the mere knowledge that these programs exist may be embarassing, but do not constitute security breaches.

But many critics refused to focus on the merits of the revelations, focusing instead on the narrow legal issue: "revealing classified information is a crime, period." They are right, but they miss the point that law and ethics don't always coincide.

The president comes across as seriously hypocritical when he condemns leaks while leaking himself, and narrowly legalistic defenses don't change that. He also comes across as a liar thanks to his public statements after the Plame affair came to light.

Finally, one can properly ask why, if Bush was willing to declassify information in the normal course of things, he didn't just declassify and release it but instead leaked it to a reporter. The answer, clearly, is that he had a political motive for releasing the information. This isn't in itself unethical; it only becomes a problem if the leak damages national security -- which it didn't -- or if one is hypocritical about such leaks -- which Bush was -- or if one lies about it -- which Bush did.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked the quote John Kerry used on Meet the Press:

“Even though I’m a tranquil guy now at this stage of my life, I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the name of our sources. They are, in my view, the most insidious of traitors.”

--George H.W. Bush, 1991

4/10/2006 2:59 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Yes, that's a reasonable distinction. Revealing general outlines of programs doesn't harm anyone. Revealing operational details -- or naming sources or other specific secrets -- can get people killed.

4/10/2006 9:18 AM  

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