Normal practice in the U.S. is in stark contract to British attitudes when it comes to matters of secrecy, finds Scott Shane
British political leaders were infuriated this week when the name of the Manchester concert bomber was disclosed by U.S. officials, and further outraged when The New York Times ran investigators’ photographs of the bomb remnants. After Prime Minister Theresa May complained bitterly to President Donald Trump, he denounced the leaks on Thursday and vowed to find and punish the leakers.
But when it comes to keeping secrets, Trump is hardly a model.
He blithely passed on to the Russians sensitive counterterrorism intelligence from Israel - and publicly seemed to confirm the breach after his staff denied it. Speaking by phone to the widely scorned president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, Trump revealed the presence of two nuclear submarines off North Korea, a highly unusual disclosure.
Is there something particularly American about leaking? Some national allergy to protecting government secrets?
Yes, in fact, there is. And whether you denounce that as a dangerous trait or accept it as an underpinning of democracy, it is unlikely to change, according to a range of former officials and students of government secrecy.
“To sum up what distinguishes the United States in a nutshell: It’s the First Amendment,” said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “The concept of a free press has been integral to the American idea since its inception. That’s not true even of other democracies. The press here even has the right to be irresponsible, which it sometimes is.”
The contrast with Britain, despite the shared democratic heritage, is particularly stark. Instead of the First Amendment, the British have the Official Secrets Act, which allows the government to ban in advance the publication of government secrets and prescribes punishments not just for leakers, but also for the journalists who publish the information.
Despite an unprecedented string of prosecutions for leaks under the Obama administration and a pledge on Thursday by Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to end “these rampant leaks that undermine our national security,” unauthorised disclosures of secrets are far more common in Washington than London.
“I’m trying to think of a scandal over a leak from the intelligence service here, and I can’t think of one,” said John Lloyd, a veteran British journalist and a founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. “The culture of ‘you don’t need to know this’ hangs around in the UK.”
He added that the FBI, the CIA, and in recent years even the National Security Agency had been far more open and involved in the political fray than their buttoned-up counterparts in Britain, known respectively as MI5, MI6 and Government Communications Headquarters.
Lloyd said the countersecrecy culture in the United States was shaped not only by the First Amendment, but also by the “quite radical” interpretation by the Supreme Court in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, which prohibited the government from ordering that leaked information not be published.
In that case, Max Frankel, who was then The New York Times’ Washington bureau chief, laid out in an affidavit a classic statement of the journalists’ position on leaks. “Without the use of ‘secrets’,” wrote Frankel, who later became the newspaper’s top editor, “there could be no adequate diplomatic, military and political reporting of the kind our people take for granted, either abroad or in Washington.”
For British journalists, Lloyd said, “probing into dark corners of the state here really takes its inspiration from the U.S.”
In the case of the Manchester bombing, Greater Manchester police officials were angry when the name of the suspected bomber, Salman Abedi, leaked from the United States even before the coroner could match an identification card found at the scene to the bomber’s body, according to a British intelligence official.
The official said investigators feared that publishing Abedi’s name might prompt relatives and possible co-conspirators to evade the police, though that appears not to have happened. (It hardly needs saying, given British law, that the official spoke on the condition of anonymity even to explain British anger about the leaks.)
The NYT’s posting on Wednesday of the photographs of the bomb components, including a battery and scraps of what seemed to be a backpack, compounded the investigators’ frustration, the official said. Those photographs bore a stamp saying “Restricted Circulation — Official Use Only,” a designation below “secret” and used in routine government business.
Across the American political spectrum, officials expressed sympathy for British complaints. Trump called the leaks “deeply troubling,” and Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence Committee, said “the British government has every right to be furious”.
John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA, said he did not blame the British for temporarily halting routine intelligence sharing in response to the leaks. “It’s particularly damaging in a terrorism case,” he said.
But beyond such reactions to the current furor, the larger story of America and leaks is more complicated, especially since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Only because of illegal leaks of classified information did the public initially learn of the CIA’s secret prisons and use of torture, the NSA’s eavesdropping without court orders and the details of U.S. drone strikes. Barack Obama ran for president in part against what he considered the excesses of counterterrorism programs under George W. Bush, as disclosed by leaks - but Obama’s administration then prosecuted far more leakers than all previous presidents combined.
In his short tenure, Trump may already have exceeded his predecessor’s contradictions. On the campaign trail, he cheered on the leak of Democratic emails, declaring, “I love WikiLeaks.” Those emails were unclassified, but WikiLeaks has published hundreds of thousands of classified American documents.
In office, Trump has regularly fulminated against leaks, especially those about the FBI and congressional investigations of contacts between his associates and Russia. “The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?” he asked on Twitter in February.
© 2017 New York Times News Service