If one were to compile a list of reoccurring issues in this presidency and rank them by prevalence, the leaking of classified information would surely be near the top of that list. Whether the leaks are coming from Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, or, more recently, from former NSA Contractor Reality Winner, the question of how to treat the leaking of classified information has become a polarizing topic and has even lead to splits within the American right-wing.
Proponents argue that hackers reveal truths the government is “hiding” from the public; while critics point out that the government, for reasons of national security, has an obligation to keep some information secret.
Advocates of liberty often take the hackers’ side in this debate; but are these hackers spreading liberty, or are they putting us all in jeopardy? The answer is surprisingly clear: some information is dangerous, and it is the government’s job to protect it.
Leaking classified information is illegal, but the public doesn’t always treat it as an unforgivable offense. Americans aren’t necessarily against the concept of leaks if it fits their particular narrative. For instance, Reality Winner’s activity appealed to staunch opponents of President Trump like Rosie O’Donnell, who celebrated Winner’s leaking of documents and even gave the woman money. Trump’s supporters vehemently opposed these leaks, but they celebrated WikiLeaks’ publishing of Democratic National Committee emails during the 2016 campaign.
That contrast is troubling because the issue isn’t the particular information that has been leaked. Rather, the issue is that our country’s secrets are being released to the world. Patriots should be outraged that there are people – even fellow Americans – that disregard the importance of national security to this degree. The First Amendment, specifically freedom of the press, has limits, and those limits exist to protect the well-being of the country. Patriotism means that you love your country so much that you want to hold your government to account and to improve it, but I would argue that leaking does nothing to accomplish these goals. If you are compromising classified information, the actual content is irrelevant; government secrets are now out in the open, and national security is at risk.
In the case of Julian Assange, an article published by BBC in May of this year said it best:
“To his supporters, Julian Assange is a valiant campaigner for truth. To his critics, he is a publicity-seeker who has endangered lives by putting a mass of sensitive information into the public domain.”
But the division between these two opinions is concerning. There has to be a line for Americans between revealing damaging information about a particular official and revealing information that endangers the physical well-being of citizens. If a piece of information threatens the life of even one American, Americans should not support its revelation. However, if the information reveals public corruption, different people begin to draw the line in different places. It is impossible for us as a society to effectively decide whether or not to declassify information on a case-to-case basis. Thus, we entrust the government to make those decisions. If we are to endow the government with these decisions, we should accept their reasons for classifying information in the way that they do. Therefore, society should never tolerate the leaking of classified information.
Ideally, we want a transparent government, an entity that exists to serve the interests of the people so well that there’s nothing to hide. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Publicizing all the information the government receives and produces simply isn’t possible. Certainly, there is a case to be made for exposing war crimes or corrupt government officials; but when hackers compromise military secrets, they put American lives at risk.
Sure, context matters. But it is important to remember that when information is released, it pokes a hole in our defenses. If you are comfortable with that, fine, but your comfort level should not change based on who the revelation harms. You either support the release of truth, or you condemn the spilling of government secrets.
Classified information should not be acceptable or unacceptable based on which side of the aisle it caters to, even if you believe that the government should reveal more of its secrets to the public. In my view, if one leak puts even a single American in danger, all leaks should be condemned. The government should be limited, but one of its constitutional duties is to protect us; so if we leak its secrets, we are risking our own safety.