Daniel W. Drezner

Why I like power-hungry bureaucrats more than whistle-blowers

Why I like power-hungry bureaucrats more than whistle-blowers

One of my occasional concerns about foreign policy is how ill-conceived, ill-informed, or simply illegal policies get fixed.  As I’ve noted before, one of the problems with relying on whistleblowers is that the kind of person who believes themselves to be a truthteller also tends to have otherbaggage.  To the blunt, the personality tropes that permit whistleblowers to speak truth to power also frequently make it easy to paint them as odd or unhinged. 

For exhibit A of this concern, see Matt Bai’s New York Times Magazine profile of Scott Ritter, the weapons inspector who prominently and loudly insisted that there were no weapons ogf mass destruction in Iraq.  Ritter was right, but he was also plenty odd in the way he went about arguing his point.  In recent years Ritter has gotten himself into legal trouble by… well, let’s say by doing things on the internet with individuals posing as ostensibly underage girls.   Bai focuses on the ways in which Ritter’s belligerent insistence of his own rightness explains both his Iraq behavior and his refusal to plea bargain his current legal difficulties:

If there is a connection between Ritter the activist and Ritter the accused…  it probably lies in the uncompromising, even heedless way in which he insists on his version of reality, and how he sees himself always as the victim of a system that is self-evidently corrupt. “I’m someone who believes the truth needs to be heard,” Ritter told me. “And if I’m empowered with the truth, I’m not going to shut up.”

Such stridency has repercussions. Taken in isolation, this latest case against Ritter… is hardly the kind of thing that lands you on “America’s Most Wanted.” It’s not as though Ritter, who is the father of twin 19-year-old daughters, was trolling an adolescent site looking to prey on minors. Nor did he ever hint at meeting with the fictional Emily face to face. There’s little question the man needs help, but such cases are routinely disposed of through plea bargains, and prosecutors in Ritter’s case were willing, initially, to let him escape with a single guilty plea, which may well have meant probation rather than jail. Especially given Ritter’s previous arrests in New York, this seems to have been a more-than-equitable resolution, and most accused sex offenders in the age of Megan’s Law would probably have jumped at it.

But Ritter has forcefully insisted all along that he did nothing wrong, beyond betraying Marina’s trust. “Why would I plead guilty to something I didn’t do?” he asked me, when I raised the issue of a plea arrangement. I suggested he might have done it to avoid going to jail.

“No,” he replied. “Wrong answer. Then I’m not a man. Then I’m not a human being.”

People like Ritter might be truth-tellers, but because they have additional baggage, their ability to perform their truth-telling function becomes compromised.

This fact was getting me down, but then I read Jack Shafer’s excellent review of Max Holland’s Leak:  Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.  Shafer’s review is designed to puncture the romantic myth of Felt as a lone crusader who dared to bring down Nixon because It Was The Right Thing To Do: 

Recasting Deep Throat as an avenger and not a patriot, Leak illuminates our understanding of the press by explaining why sources leak. Anonymous sources — especially Washington’s anonymous sources — almost invariably have an ax to grind, as Betty Cuniberti established in her classic August 1987 Los Angeles Times story. One unnamed Reagan administration official tells her that most Reagan White House leaks are “personal,” aimed at other White House officials. “There’s a great deal of infighting,” he tells her.

Reagan White House staffers who couldn’t get the president’s attention would slip “Message-to-Reagan” leaks to the press to generate news stories or press conference questions to which he would have to respond, Cuniberti writes. The art of the leak requires information to be packaged just right, she notes. A national security adviser who wanted to plant a story in the press — a so-called authorized leak — might avoid giving the information directly to a reporter because the reporter would rightly view it as a self-serving leak designed to advance the administration’s views. Even rookie reporters get suspicious of sources’ motives. Better to have a subordinate convey the leak to disguise the motive and make the information seem more authentically newsworthy.

Leak‘s persuasive position is that Felt gamed Woodward, making him think that he was on the side of the angels when what he was trying to do was screw his enemies and become the next J. Edgar Hoover. That’s not a criticism of Woodward or his Watergate work, which by the standards of any day was very good….

Nor was Felt’s gaming of Woodward unusual. Every source leaks for a reason, and it’s usually not about preserving the constitution and the American way. As Stephen Hess writes, sources have many reasons to leak. They leak to boost their own egos. They leak to make a goodwill deposit with a reporter that they hope to withdraw in the future. They leak to advance their policy initiative. They leak to launch trial balloons and sometimes even to blow the whistle on wrongdoing. But until contesting evidence arrives, it’s usually a safe bet that a leak is what Hess calls an “Animus Leak,” designed to inflict damage on another party.

Shafer is trying to burst the noble bubble surrounding Felt, but to this political scientist, his argument was very soothing.  A world in which we must rely on whistleblowers that possess martyr complexes for important information about national security is a dangerous world.  It is too easy to tarnish whistleblowers because of their other personality tropes. 

Bureaucrats or career-minded political appointees leaking to advance their own aims, however, covers a lot more rational actors.  Even if their motives are far from pure, the combination of individual incentives encourages a lot more leaking than would otherwise occur.  Like Adam Smith’s invisible hand, even if the intent is not for policymakers to provide more information to the press, the combined effect is a larger and more accurate spotlight on the foreign policy machine. 

My point:  I’ll take a world of greedy and power-seeking bureaucrats over a world of noble, self-righteous whistleblowers to promote transparency in foreign policy and national security. 

What do you think?