How to embrace leaks without ignoring a bleak Obama era legacy

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn | Getty

In the past two days, the news cycle has been dominated by revelations, accusations, and no shortage of speculation. Whenever a senior aide to the President resigns, plagued by scandal, after less than a month on the job, it’s bound to be a story. But when the air is thick with Cold War-reminiscent accusations of espionage and questions about whether the Kremlin has infiltrated the highest levels of U.S. government, it’s too easy for the news cycle — not to mention the Internet — to go off the rails.

And now we have two allegedly competing narratives. Depending on who you ask, the scandal is either that the President of the United States and his senior aides have been colluding with a foreign power (and the intelligence community is heroically exposing wrongdoing), or that the intelligence community is — for their own unknown, but allegedly political, reasons — undermining a democratically elected leader.

Despite National Security Advisor Mike Flynn’s recent resignation, no smoking gun has surfaced yet to prove the former. The New York Times’ story on the leaks, with the suggestively damning title Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence, falls short of proving much beyond the fact that there was contact. The remaining evidence is, at best, circumstantial. “Contact” with officials of a foreign government is a far cry from collusion to rig an election.

That isn’t to say that the evidence doesn’t exist. The current leaks may be further substantiated by revelations in the coming days and months. But the truth is that we don’t yet have enough evidence to validate the most serious allegations being made. What the existing evidence does provide is grounds for a Congressional investigation, which the Republican majority seems currently prepared to refuse, claiming that the leaks themselves are the story.

The intelligence leaks are undoubtedly a boon for those who reject the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency, or simply don’t want him in the Oval Office. Yet while some are using this to suggest that the leaks may be politically motivated — and they may very well be — that does nothing to delegitimize the content of the leaks themselves, as Trump and his surrogates on Fox News have been suggesting. Whatever the leakers’ motives, what’s ultimately most significant is the impact of the intelligence they provide. We may never know their motives. They undoubtedly put themselves at some risk; revealing the contents of signals intelligence (SIGNIT) to the public ranks up there with the most serious felonies one can commit in the U.S. So far, this information has led to the resignation of one of the intelligence community’s most committed adversaries in Trump’s inner circles. It has also provided legitimate grounds for further investigations into who in Trump’s administration had contact with which Russian officials, when, why, and to what effect.

Yet while hoping for future intelligence leaks may seem like the fastest and most direct way to uncovering the truth right now, any information put forward under the cloak of total anonymity by government agencies with their own agendas and internal (and external) politics should be taken with a bowl of salt. We also shouldn’t forget that the intelligence community itself has a complex history of prosecuting certain whistleblowers, and not others.

The more significant political consequence here should be that it’s no longer possible to ignore the hypocrisies of high-profile Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, who are remaining quiet now despite their rush to condemn Edward Snowden — whose revelations, while massive, came from someone much lower in the intelligence hierarchy — and other Obama-era whistleblowers. To watch the news cycle playing out now — with some liberal pundits actually cheering on the CIA and elected Democrats praising the leaks as necessary and valuable — one could easily forget that the Obama administration was one of the most hostile to whistleblowers in modern history.

In the rush to unveil wrongdoings by Trump’s administration, we can’t forget that Democrats’ failure to denounce ongoing leaks doesn’t correlate to institutional support for whistleblowers. We can’t forget that Obama’s administration has bequeathed to Trump a legacy of cracking down on leakers and the journalists who support them. Given his attitude towards the media and his contempt for “disloyalty,” there is every reason to believe that Trump will prove even more hostile to whistleblowers than Obama.

We shouldn’t look to these anonymous leakers to save us. This circumstantial evidence is more than sufficient to demand Congressional investigations into the issue — conducted transparently, on the record, and in the public eye. We shouldn’t rely on more leaks to get this information out; our elected officials have the authority to demand it, and that’s where our energy as citizens should be directed now.

But if the Democratic leadership does use the leaks as grounds to demand an investigation, as they should, then we must demand they adopt the same attitude toward whistleblowers going forward — particularly those who, like Snowden, will likely fall far lower in the intelligence community hierarchy than the leakers currently making headlines, and be far more vulnerable to political and legal retribution as a result.