On Friday, Jeff Sessions announced an all-out crusade against White House leaks — one in which the reporters who published leaked information might even face legal consequences.
Now, it goes without saying that the level of leaking that President Trump has had to deal with would make it tough for any president to govern. All other aspects of Trump’s administration aside, there’s no denying that it’s hard to conduct business if you have to worry about that business being splashed all across the front pages of the Washington Post — and even harder if foreign leaders have to worry about the same thing.
Here’s the thing, though: If you believe that this automatically means that the Washington Post (or any publication, regardless of whether or not the president has decided to dismiss it as “ fake news”) should be subject to punishment for publishing leaks, then you are disregarding the valuable role that our free press plays in keeping the United States a free country.
To be fair, Sessions did claim to understand the value of the free press in his criticisms of it. He stated:
We respect the important role that the press plays, and will give them respect, but it is not unlimited. They cannot place lives at risk with impunity. We must balance the press’s role with protecting our national security and the lives of those that serve in the intelligence community, the armed forces, and all law-abiding Americans.
Here’s the thing though, Sessions: If you truly “respect the important role that the press plays,” then you’re not going to be threatening subpoenas or even jail time for journalists for publishing leaked information like you did on Friday.
On a logical level, I do understand the “national security” argument against leaks. Essentially, it’s the idea that things like the release of President Trump’s phone-call transcripts will make foreign leaders wary about having conversations with the United States, and that the wariness could lead to us missing out on intelligence information or negotiation opportunities. Is the “threat” concern valid? Sure, I think, to an extent . . . because it does make the administration’s job tougher. But it’s not so much a direct threat as it is a procedural one — and “potential procedural threat” would be a dangerously subjective standard to set for jailing American journalists. Think about it: Technically, any negative information about an administration could be twisted into qualifying as a procedural threat to our national security, if the standard is that the publication of that information makes the president’s job harder.
One of the greatest things about our country is that we don’t have a government that’s permitted to crack down on the press based on a subjective standard. If we start jailing people based on “Oh, the publication of this info might make us look bad to other countries,” then that’s not just threatening our free press; it’s completely disassembling it.
People tend to change their view of leaks based on the political affiliation of the official who’s being dogged by them at the time.
People tend to change their view of leaks based on the political affiliation of the official who’s being dogged by them at the time. If the subject of a leak takes down a person’s “opposition,” then that person will probably underscore how the threat of leaks can help keep our elected officials honest. If the subject of the leak takes down a person’s own team, then that person will probably underscore how the threat of leaks can keep our elected officials from doing their jobs effectively. Both can be true, and judgments on this issue are so often determined by a combination of both emotion and affiliation — which is exactly why we can never, ever, ever give the government the power to lock up journalists over their honest reporting of them.