President Trump took to Twitter this morning to condemn the leaks that have embarrassed his administration for the last month. After The New York Times reported that his campaign aides had repeated contact with Russian intelligence agents last year, citing “four current and former American officials,” the president tweeted that “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!” Compare this to the less real scandal of accepting the help of a hostile foreign power to become president, which is only mildly un-American. But Trump raises a valid question. When is it a betrayal of the United States to leak classified information to the public, either directly or indirectly through the press, and when is it a service?
The obvious parallel to these leaks about the Trump campaign is the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. The Russians probably did that, or at least abetted it, and it was illegal. Insofar as it contributed to Trump’s victory in November, it was also probably bad for America. But setting aside how the information was acquired, was the leak itself wrong? It is perhaps more useful to ask whether keeping the information secret would have been right. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and other DNC officials were secretly breaking the rules of their party. Voters deserved to know that the fix was in. To say the material in the leaks belonged to the Democratic Party or was “stolen” by the hackers who revealed it is to advance the argument that information is property, and Americans must demonstrate some special claim on the truth about their own system of government.
But what about classified information? The federal government withholds certain information about its actions from the American people in order to keep other people from knowing. Usually, that’s a good reason. But is leaking classified information always wrong? Edward Snowden leaked classified information about secret surveillance programs that the Obama administration began walking back as soon as they came to light. In this case, classified status didn’t protect us; it protected the federal government. Rather than function as a public-safety expedient, secrecy functioned as a check on democratic power.
From an ethics perspective, the news that officials in the Trump campaign met with Russian intelligence operatives—wittingly or unwittingly—falls somewhere between the DNC leaks and what Snowden did. If Trump coordinated with the Russians, voters deserve to know. This could be the beginning of a scandal comparable to Watergate—another important part of American history we wouldn’t know about if anonymous leakers had not divulged secret information. But it could also be part of a politically motivated campaign to damage his presidency. Remember the kompromat story? That, too, came from anonymous leakers1 in the intelligence community and involved information voters had a right to know, if it was true. It just probably wasn’t.
Nobody wants a scenario where classified information becomes a political tool. But virtually any such information that the public deserves to know is going to have political consequences. If the Kremlin gave Trump a Faberge egg in exchange for a promise not to defend Ukraine, divulging that information would be a political act. Abuse of power is necessarily political. The real scandal, Trump insists, is not what his campaign did but how we came to know about it. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) has called for a “purge” of leakers from intelligence agencies. But if they are telling the truth, what exactly would we get rid of?