Jewish World Review May 23, 2003 / 21 Iyar, 5763

Paul Rosenzweig

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Self-important 'leakers' | When Phillip Agee took it upon himself to release the names of CIA agents in Europe, including Richard Welch, many of those who believe in the public's right to know applauded. Few were heard repeating that applause when, later that year, Welch was killed by leftist terrorists in Athens.

Leaks can kill. But they rarely generate the positive social benefits many leakers contend.

The recent leak of a National Security Agency memo requesting British help with surveillance of U.N. members is instructive. The leak was trumpeted in some quarters as being more important than the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

Yet almost nobody in the United States has heard of this event, and, insofar as this American observer can discern, it has had no appreciable effect on foreign or domestic policy.

That's because the importance of leaks such as this one lies in the eye of the beholder. For example, a leaker may think we routinely manufacture intelligence to show a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda or that the secretary of state and the foreign secretary use plagiarized and bogus documents. Anyone with this view is naturally inclined to magnify the significance of information that comes across his desk and convince himself that it simply must be made public.

When all that is necessary to justify a leak is an appeal to a higher duty - as perceived by the leaker - we are left at the mercy of their perceptions, however warped and distant from reality they may be. Who among us is not susceptible to images of self-importance?

And let's be clear - for one truly convinced of the malfeasance of a government organization there are plenty of alternatives. Leaking isn't the same as, say, resigning in conscience.

If you want to quit the government to protest American involvement in the war on Iraq, more power to you. That is an honorable course for someone who disagrees with a policy and wants to dissociate himself from it.

But that's a completely different step from deliberately disclosing information, especially top-secret or other classified information. Those who join, for example, a national intelligence agency know the nature of their obligations when they start - they take an oath not to disclose what they have learned.

How trustworthy then, is their decision when they break that solemn vow in service of a "higher duty"? Might we not suspect that there is just a whiff of self-validation to the disclosure?

But even then, the leaker might still retain some moral high ground, if he were not so intent on avoiding the consequences of his actions. When Martin Luther King Jr. engaged in civil disobedience he understood he would pay a price, and he willingly spent time in the Birmingham jail because he believed in his cause.

The modern-day leaker too often wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to make his own determination of what is and is not in the public interest and also to be immune - as a "whistleblower" - from being punished for breaching his obligations and the law.

To be sure, not every leak needs or ought to be prosecuted. Government should allow a wide range of public discourse, and we should be skeptical of a government that uses laws to silence opposition. But the fantasy that every leaker is a courageous "whistleblower" is far too broad. Some leaks do kill. And when one chooses to break the law, one must be willing to accept the consequences.

In many instances the decision to leak is not courageous - it is conceit masquerading as courage. Nor is it moral - it is pride and self-congratulation masquerading as morality. Nobody is, or should be, above the law.

Paul Rosenzweig is an adjunct professor of law at George Mason University. Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services