When national security leaks were patriotic

Donald Trump
Donald Trump speaks at an event in the White House. (Alex Brandon/AP)

When national security leaks were patriotic

WHEN NATIONAL SECURITY LEAKS WERE PATRIOTIC. National security circles in Washington are aghast at a new leak of classified U.S. military documents. Apparently originating in the Pentagon, the leak is said to include around 100 documents and focuses mostly on U.S. assistance to Ukraine and American assessments of Ukraine’s defense against the Russian invasion.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the leaked material comes from a top-secret document in which U.S. intelligence concluded in February that Ukraine’s military effort is falling “well short” of its goals. According to an account in the Washington Post, that “bleak assessment” is “a marked departure from the Biden administration’s public statements about the vitality of Ukraine’s military and is likely to embolden critics who feel the United States and NATO should do more to push for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.”

Is that the point of the entire leak? To create pressure and momentum for a negotiated settlement? Perhaps it is. Whatever the case, an account in Politico quoted two anonymous Department of Defense officials expressing deep anger about the leak. “This is a massive betrayal,” one said. “I’m sick to my stomach,” the other said.

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There hasn’t been time to fully assess public reaction — the leak, originally on obscure social media platforms, has only slowly come into public view — but it is safe to say that many commentators will share the Pentagon officials’ view. But not all leaks are viewed as serious security breaches. Just look at three troubling violations of national security in the last six years and how they were received.

Start in the time period from December 2016 to January 2017. It was the transition from the outgoing Obama administration to the incoming Trump administration. Someone, a “senior U.S. government official,” leaked some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets — that is, the contents of intercepted phone conversations — to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. The purpose of the leak, concerning a phone call incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn made to then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, was to kneecap Donald Trump and his team before the new president even took office.

Ignatius’s column turbocharged the Russia frenzy that was getting started in Washington. He began by asking: “Did Trump’s campaign encourage Russia’s alleged hacking to hurt his rival Hillary Clinton and help him, and does Russia have any leverage over him?” Then Ignatius revealed the leak, although he coyly framed his revelations as questions:

According to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on December 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act (though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated? The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

That passage set off years of criminal investigation and litigation, which ended with…virtually nothing. But it did help cripple the new Trump administration. And the reaction of much of the political commentariat to the grievously serious leak was to praise the leaker as a patriot.

“The only reason we’re finding out about it now is because a patriot did leak this to the Washington Post,” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said. A writer for the New Yorker said the leaker or leakers were “hidden heroes.” And a writer for the Atlantic said the leak should remind everyone “why patriots should cherish a free and independent press.” Of course, the story was not about the press’s freedom to publish. It was about a battle inside the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy in which powerful figures sought to weaken the new, and hated, president. And for many commentators, the leaker was the good guy.

About six months later, someone leaked more highly sensitive material — transcripts of phone calls between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Trump and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Again, the leaker sought to embarrass Trump. This time, the calls created minor controversies that did not last long among the many, many other controversies of Trump’s first months in office. But the leaking of the calls was another one of the “norms” broken in the bureaucracy’s effort to undermine the president.

Finally, in the summer of 2019, a member of the White House National Security Council, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, told a person outside the White House about a phone call Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Vindman has steadfastly refused to identify the person he told, but it is widely believed that that person took Vindman’s leaked information and shaped it into a “whistleblower” complaint against the president.

Legally, it was an absurd move — there is no structure, and no basis in law, for whistleblower complaints in the White House. But Democrats in the House were happy to receive the “whistleblower” information, using it as the starting step in Trump’s first impeachment. Later, Trump himself released the White House’s rough transcript of the Zelensky call, in part to preclude weeks of dribs and drabs leaking from the Democratic impeachment team on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, Vindman and the still-anonymous “whistleblower” were hailed as heroes and great patriots.

Those were the days when leaks, all targeting Trump, were good. Now, there are new leaks in the news. They are terribly serious. Like the Trump-era leaks before them, the person or persons responsible should be caught and punished. (That would be unusual. Most of the time, no perpetrator is caught, and no one is punished.) But this time, the leaker will at least be roundly denounced, which is as it should be and a welcome change from recent years.

For a deeper dive into many of the topics covered in the Daily Memo, please listen to my podcast, The Byron York Show — available on the Ricochet Audio Network and everywhere else podcasts can be found. You can use this link to subscribe.

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