Why do leakers do it? Probably many
Americans have asked that question lately, moved by the cases of
Edward Snowden, the security contractor who spilled the beans about
government surveillance of phone calls and electronic communication,
and Bradley Manning, the army private who leaked documents allegedly
showing American blundering in Iraq.
In passing, it's easier to feel a bit
of sympathy for Manning than Snowden. After all, Manning's leaking
concerned an unnecessary war that left Iraq a shambles and helped
destabilize the Middle East. Snowden, by contrast, leaked information
about a program conducted under congressional and court oversight,
with no demonstrated abuses of the system shown to have occurred.
But all that aside, what is it that
motivates leakers? Without presuming to have the answer as it
pertains to Snowden and Manning, I'd say--based on much exposure to
leaking during 30 years' experience in media relations--that three
motives stand out in general. Often of course two or even three of
them are operative in the same situation.
The first and by far the most
attractive is altruistic--the desire to right a wrong or prevent a
harm. But altruistic motives don't mean the leaker is necessarily
correct in his or her reading of the facts, only that he or she had
good intentions. (Bear in mind, of course, what it is that paves, the
proverbial road to hell.)
Next comes revenge. Failing to get a
promotion or losing out in an internal power struggle, the leaker
turns to leaking to work off resentment. Needless to say, this
exhibits one of the nastier aspects of human nature at work.
Third is the desire for
self-aggrandizement. The leaker yearns to be a player in a
high-stakes game, a media manipulator, a wheeler and dealer, a Deep
Throat look-alike. Here is a quick and easy way for a little guy to
be a big shot, albeit an anonymous one.
The practice of leaking is ubiquitous.
Certainly it is present in the Church, as I was reminded time and
again over the years. But even there it's hardly new. Thus
systematic leaking was a notable feature at Vatican Council I
(1869-70), practiced by both sides in the conciliar debates. And very
likely it would have started long before then if the necessary
symbiotic relationship between leaking and the press had existed in
On the whole, the national discussion
stirred by Manning and Snowden--especially Snowden--is a useful one.
Even though the spying carried out by
the National Security Agency involved no actual abuses, no violations
of the law, a potential for serious abuse unavoidably does exist in a
mammoth surveillance program conducted in secret by the use of state
of the art technology. That underlines the need for continuing
scrutiny by Congress, though not the posturing that some of our
congresspersons are so quick to indulge in on occasions like this.
Two important values are in conflict
here--privacy and security. But without dismissing the claims of
privacy, security comes first when a choice between them has to be
Government security officials whose
testimony I have no reason to doubt say that surveillance by NSA
helped foil dozens of terrorist plots. Assuming continued, rigorous
oversight of NSA, that's good enough for me.
A more pressing question may be how
callow young men like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning came to have
access to top-level national secrets in the first place. Is it the
surveillance program or the vetting system that needs to be fixed?