Callum Borchers: Do leaks really put lives at risk?

Callum Borchers covers politics and media for The Washington Post.

The Washington Post’s report this week that President Donald Trump alarmed U.S. officials by sharing classified information with Russian diplomats made Trump appear reckless, but when national security adviser H.R. McMaster addressed reporters on Tuesday, he expressed a more urgent concern than bad optics.


“I think national security is put at risk by this leak and leaks like this,” the general said.

This is a standard denunciation of leaks to the press. Republican and Democratic administrations alike often insist that disclosures of sensitive information to reporters put lives in danger. Is that true or is the real threat to the image of the White House?

“There’s plenty of huffing and puffing that goes on, plenty of attempts to hide embarrassments and incompetence,” said Jason Ross Arnold, a professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on leaks. “Even in the national security realm, something comes out and maybe it’s not that serious, but they make it seem like it is.”

Arnold, who recently completed a manuscript for his second book about leaks, said he is not familiar with a single case in which someone died as a direct result of a leak to the media.

In 2013, retired Brig. Gen. Robert Carr testified that an Afghan national was killed because Chelsea Manning provided battlefield reports containing roughly 900 names to WikiLeaks, which published the documents unredacted.

Under cross examination, however, Carr acknowledged that the man who died was not among those identified in the war logs. The judge presiding over Manning’s sentencing struck Carr’s original assertion from the record.

An absence of direct casualties does not mean leaks are harmless, however.

“I think the strongest argument — and there are several — about negative consequences to security has more to do with indirect consequences,” Arnold said. “With the Manning leaks, she gave WikiLeaks these war logs with thousands upon thousands of detailed military operations. People who have access to big data techniques can find patterns and thus plan targets and develop strategies as a result.”

“We can’t point to an individual who was killed,” Arnold added. “However, because of the new strategies and tactics adopted by terrorist groups — and because we’ve maybe been unable to follow them as well as we did before — disclosures have potentially, in some way, led to some of the attacks in Europe or even in the United States.”

It is important to note that major news outlets generally handle sensitive information more delicately than WikiLeaks does. The Post reported Monday evening that Trump shared with the Russians “details of an Islamic State terrorist threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft” and that he revealed the city in Islamic State territory where a U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat.

The article, by Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe, explained that “The Post is withholding most plot details, including the name of the city, at the urging of officials who warned that revealing them would jeopardize important intelligence capabilities.”

The Post’s national editor, Scott Wilson, said in an interview that he and other editors take national security concerns into consideration when making publishing decisions.

“In national security stories such as this one, we are constantly trying to balance the public’s right to know and the context the public needs to understand what we’re reporting against information that could jeopardize, first and foremost, people and, second, ongoing U.S. or allied intelligence and military operations,” Wilson said.

McMaster wasn’t satisfied by The Post’s judgment, of course, which is why he made the remark about endangering national security. Arnold said he “used to be a skeptic by default with regard to comments like that” but has grown more sympathetic.

“As I’ve studied these issues, there is a way in which he is making a sincere point, even though he can’t point to anything specific,” Arnold said.

Callum Borchers covers politics and media for The Washington Post.



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