The Ethics of Leaking


In the aftermath of the Trump Jr. revelations of colluding with the Russians, the main “take away”, to use MBA-speak, of the Trump administration has been to redouble its efforts to find the leaker or leakers. Moreover, Trump supporters are mostly on board with this, feeling that, since leaking is technically illegal, the leakers ought rightly to be hunted down and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Yet I cannot help thinking of how the situation would play out at Berkeley or even a large company facing the same issue. Consider the situation relating to BP and the Deepwater Horizon incident. BP surely has rules concerning the release of internal documents describing the stringency of safety measures and the like. Yet, if BP absolves itself of all responsibility for the accident and an employee knows this is false, California law, and the law in most other states, protects a person who comes forward with this information. We call this person a whistle blower rather than a leaker, and we laud her courage.

In Trump-land, we have heard for months that there is not a shred of evidence that Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government in the 2016 election. And the reason for this lack of evidence is that, quite simply, such collusion never occurred. We have heard this from press secretaries, from cabinet officials, from GOP Representatives and Senators.

But, as Trump Jr’s tweets (and the NYT story) show, it’s all a lie. Someone in the the administration knew this and came forward (quietly) to the press.

Why then do we not laud such a person or persons for speaking truth to power? Why do we not consider such people patriots of the highest order, dedicated to protecting our democracy from manipulation by hostile powers?

I don’t really know why. Maybe, in the course of time, we will. I’m sure Deep Throat was thrown under the bus in Nixon’s time, yet today we recognize the service this source, together with the aggressive reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, did for us in uncovering the Watergate cover-up.

It saddens and alarms me that a large portion of the country views those who leaked the Trump Jr. e-mails to the New York Times as criminals and traitors when, in fact, the evidence provided brought to light something deeply wrong with the 2016 election.

Consider the choices made by our founders: It was illegal to rebel against Britain. It was certainly illegal to form an army and a Continental Congress in opposition to British rule. Taking the post as General in Chief of the Continental Army made George Washington a traitor of the highest order, public enemy number one, a person to be hunted down with all of the vast resources of the British Empire. Were Washington caught or captured, it is unclear whether any of the usual protections to opposing combatants would apply. Most likely, he would have been brought to the Tower of London and, if he were lucky, beheaded. If less lucky, he would be hanged, and if decidedly unlucky, he would be drawn and quartered. The same was true of Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and many, many other notables.

Was it the duty of all good Americans to help round up these criminals and hand them over to the British authorities? Certainly the Tories thought so and tried to do so. Yet no one looks back on these actions and decries the founders as criminals. We call them patriots instead. No one looks back and applauds the Tories. We consider them to be contemptible.

Why do we lack the perspective to say that calling out the lies and fabrications of the present administration is no less of an honorable pursuit?

Let me personalize things: Suppose you knew your boss was lying about doing something highly unethical, possibly illegal, and harmful to the company. Suppose you had solid evidence that he or she was lying. What is the right thing to do? Is your moral duty to remain quiet because that’s what the boss wants? Or is it to make the evidence public?

I am not an ethicist, though I know a couple, but I would guess that the right thing to do is to shine a light on truth. And I’d also guess that, if you were damned for having done so, it would still be the right thing to do.

Let’s wake up and consider morality rather than the narrow legal rules of an unwieldy bureaucracy in deciding whether to condemn those who expose enormous lies. Let us cheer those willing to risk their careers, their reputations, and even their personal freedom in order to protect the grand edifice erected by our founders. Let us call them patriots who refuse to be cowed by the Tories who hunt them. Let us celebrate their courage rather than decrying their violation of some arbitrary rule.

Rules are indeed useful, and serve us well in normal times. But these times are not normal, and, if the rules merely serve to protect the powerful from culpability, the morally right thing to do, the ethical thing to do, is to ignore them. This is not a blue state issue or a red state issue, it is an American issue.