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?
Maybe you heard about this, but yesterday the Senate Intelligence Committee released the summary version of its six-year investigation into CIA torture during the Bush administration. The summary is 525 pages long. It describes detainees who were subjected to medically unnecessary rectal hydration procedures, detainees who were deprived of sleep for as long as a week, detainees made to stand on broken feet—you know what? Let’s just go ahead and call them prisoners. Once you’ve waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for the 183rd time, he’s your prisoner. The president has condemned these behaviors as torture. But he refuses to comment on whether they produced meaningful intelligence that deterred terrorist attacks.
I’m not saying that one political position in America is currently smarter than the other, but the Senate health care reform package involves death panels, the President of the United States is not an American citizen, and the swine flu vaccine might be a trick. Also, this lady. When high school graduate Glenn Beck claims that Nelson Rockefeller was a communist because of a mural he commissioned from Diego Rivera—a mural whose depiction of Lenin angered Rockefeller so much that it touched off the century’s greatest controversy in public art—it’s tempting to conclude that his position is influenced by, well, ignorance. As we all know, “ignorant” is a polite way of saying another word that we have been trained never, ever to use in the context of responsible political debate. You can’t get anything done by disparaging people’s intelligence. To do so is, at best, to commit the ad hominem fallacy, and at worst to provide your opponent with a weapon that they will use against you later. We don’t argue about who’s smarter in America. Anyone who does winds up looking stupid.