Best Defense

CIA vet: I still don’t like leaks, but they do seem to be part of the American system

The recent spate of leaks seems to be all but designed to impede President Trump’s administration from accomplishing its political agenda.



By Dennis J. Gleeson
Best Defense guest columnist

The recent spate of leaks seems to be all but designed to impede President Donald Trump’s administration from accomplishing its political agenda. Given that the agenda is, in the words of one of Trump’s closest advisors, built around a relentless drive to “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,” I take odd comfort in knowing that the women and men who comprise the federal civil service are not mindless automatons, but rather are committed to their oaths to support and defend the Constitution. History tends not to be kind to the “just following orders” crowd.

Last month, the Washington Post ran an article that highlighted how the leaks that plague the current administration come from across the government, including from within the White House itself, and celebrated them as something of a “bonanza” to news organizations.

While I tend to be far less enthusiastic about leaks — professional habits die hard — the article was useful in that it discusses the myriad reasons why individuals might leak information to the press; the leaks might represent factional infighting within the administration, be attempts to curry favor with the press, or reflect “misgivings … about policies and would-be policies.”

In short, the Post article eschews the idea of a “deep state” in lieu of the fact that there are groups of individuals, driven by a range of motivations, who release information for either personal gain or for what they believe to be the public good. The idea of “personal gain,” for most non-executive employees of the federal government, strikes me as laughable: These are men and women — patriotic Americans — who take the idea of civil service seriously.

The fact of the matter is that leaks have long been part and parcel of U.S. politics. Consider the Pentagon Papers, which caused Americans to think about U.S. operations in Vietnam in an entirely new way, or “Deep Throat,” who provided unimaginable insight into the Nixon administration’s involvement in the break-in at the Watergate Hotel. While the unauthorized disclosure of information is a violation of the trust the government puts in an individual — a violation that, in the case of classified information, rightfully carries with it the very real risk of imprisonment — leaks tend to say something about the intersection of government policy and the values held by our civil servants.

Are leaks of classified information illegal? Absolutely.

However, when this administration is comfortable with publicly floating the idea of separating children from their parents at the U.S. border as a means of deterring illegal immigration — a cruel and unusual punishment if ever there was one — perhaps we all should pause and consider the deeper ethics not only around leaks, but also around civil service writ large.

While some policies and programs are truly sensitive and should be appropriately classified as such, policies that speak to our national identity and aspirations as a modern, developed country are different: Knowing that this administration, for example, has resorted to pressuring bureaucrats to support one of their more misguided policies is important as knowing that we, the people, are the ones who will bear the costs of Washington’s decisions long after the sun has set on this administration.

It goes without saying that we live in a deeply divided country. I am not talking about the simple narrative built around “red” and (or versus) “blue,” but also about the 40 percent of Americans who are so disenfranchised by or disgusted with American politics that they opted to stay home last November. While the GOP might trumpet its electoral victory and the Democrats might bemoan their loss, a plurality of Americans seems to feel more affinity for “none of the above” than for either Trump or Democratic Nominee Hillary Clinton.

Should we really be surprised when a small number of people put what they see as our national interests above petty ideological politics at risk to their careers, reputations, and liberty? Disagreement with the aggressive pursuit of an ideology held by the few is not disloyalty: It is putting country ahead of politics.

Dennis J. Gleeson is a former director of strategy in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Analysis. The views expressed in this article are his and his alone and, as such, do not represent the views of the United States Government, the Central Intelligence Agency, or 1010data.

Photo credit: Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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