Sunday, August 6, 2017

On leaks

With the leaked phone calls to Nieto and Turnbull, and Sessions now doing Trump's bidding on leakers, it is time to address the issue here.

With, of course, Miles's law.  I have referenced it before.  Where you stand depends on where you sit.  Hypocrisy codified.  It means that your goals and preferences will be determined by whatever institution you serve rather than any broader principle.  I extend Miles's law far beyond its original scope because I find it so useful.

Most people have an opinion on abortion.  More importantly, most people have an opinion on abortion that doesn't change.  If you are asked your position on abortion at one point in time, you are likely to give a similar answer at another point in time.  Why?  Because your opinion on abortion is governed by underlying issues of religious belief and culture that are relatively stable over time.  If you believe that god put a soul into the fertilized egg, at which point it becomes a human life, then abortion becomes murder at the moment of conception.  Since that belief is based on religion, and religion is relatively stable over time, that political belief will be stable over time.  On the other hand, if you are an atheist, then that argument won't carry any weight, and you aren't going to change your mind unless you change your mind about religion.  Later-term abortions may be a question, but not so with a just-fertilized egg.  That's why abortion attitudes are stable over time.  They are based largely on religion.  In the public opinion data, they are based most strongly on "religiosity," or how important religion is in your life.  Those who attend religious services most frequently are most likely to support restrictive abortion laws.  Those who never attend services are least likely to support restrictions on abortion.  That pattern has held consistently in the National Election Studies data.

Then, there are process attitudes.  How do you feel about government leakers?

And that's where we get into the muck.  Most people don't have stable attitudes about issues like federalism.  Why?  It depends on whether you have control of the federal or state government.

That's pretty much where the issue of leaking falls.

There are two sides to this, obviously.  There's the old cliche that sunlight is the best disinfectant, which is close to being true.  I mean, a gamma ray burst really would sterilize everything, but Sol ain't puttin' out one of those.  Still, expose nearly any life form to enough solar radiation and you'll kill it.  Tardigrades can survive a hell of a lot, though.  Badass little critters...

Grim astro-physics and microbiology humor aside, there is a lot to be said for not having a government run on secrecy.  How much bad stuff can happen when a government operates in secrecy?  A lot.  This is sort of an, "if men were angels" thing.  If you could trust the government to do the right thing, then you wouldn't need an open process, but the people in government are people, and if you could trust people, you wouldn't need government.  Power+secrecy=REALLY FUCKING BAD.  In all cases.  All the time.  I call this a universal law.

On the other side, as you have no doubt read elsewhere, there are two problems created by leakers.  First, if classified information is leaked, and that information is damaging to national security, well, then the leaks themselves are damaging.  Second, if the president cannot have private conversations, that undercuts his ability to engage in diplomacy and receive advice.

One is tempted to weigh these against each other in the specific case of Trump, taking into consideration his personal inability to engage in diplomacy or listen to advice, both of which are true anyway.

You don't get to do that here.  You have to do this in the abstract.  That's what it means if you want a principle for evaluating leaks.  Yes, Trump is a fucking idiot.  Yes, he is the worst leaker because he gave classified intelligence to the Russians, having received it from Israel without permission to share it.  Yes, he is the biggest problem here.  That's not my question here.  My question here is this:  what is the proper way to evaluate leaks independently of Trump himself?  You have to take him out of the calculations.

In a leaky White House, the president is unable to receive candid advice.  That's bad.  In a leaky White House, the president is unable to engage in candid diplomacy.  That's bad too.  In a leaky White House, though, the president can't get away with spilling national security secrets to the Russians without having us find out about it.  That's... actually, that's kind of good.

In an air-tight White House, the president can receive absolutely candid advice and nobody has anything to fear of public backlash.  That's good.  In an airtight White House, the president can have negotiations behind closed doors with other world leaders, and nobody has anything to fear about their words being leaked before a deal is worked out.  That's... GOOD!  Deals need to be made public, but the back-and-forth process is sausage-making.  That should be kept private.  But, in an air-tight White House, the president can get away with unlimited corruption, and possibly even treason.  That's... horrendous.

Neither of those scenarios are perfect.  The second one sounds worse to me, given the history of governments that operate with no public oversight.  That's a recipe for totalitarianism or unlimited corruption.  I'll take dysfunction over that any day of the week and twice on Sundays.  (Hey, it's Sunday!)

It also puts a better option somewhere in the middle, where there is some tolerance for some leaks.

And here's the interesting thing about the leaks we are seeing in the Trump administration.  Some are about things like the Mueller investigation, or the fact that Trump leaked classified intelligence to the Russians.  This is stuff that we, the public, need to know because they demonstrate how dangerous Trump is.

Some of the leaks are just embarrassing to Trump, like the phone calls to Nieto and Turnbull, which just demonstrate how unbelievably fucking stupid, petty, venal and personally dishonest Trump is.  They are valuable to the public in a sense, but only in that they add to what we already knew.  They also undercut diplomacy, though, putting them more in a gray area.

What we haven't seen are leaks of classified information that put national security at risk.  One can make a much stronger case that the Snowden leaks on US intelligence gathering programs hurt national security because they related directly to US operations.  Privacy vs. security.  Old debate.  Have at it, and it is a legitimate realm of ideological dispute, but those leaks were far more questionable than anything going on right now because they actually involved US operations.

What is going on right now really is a personal war against Trump within the executive branch.  "Deep state" is probably a bad term because it ain't that deep, but The Mooch wasn't wrong that there are a lot of people in the executive branch who think it is their job to save the country from Trump.  That's why we are seeing so many leaks.  The leaks aren't putting US military or intelligence operations at risk, as the Snowden leaks arguably did, but they are directly intended to undercut the president.  Your opinion of that will be tied to your opinion of the current President.  Miles's law in action.

The leaks themselves?  They are in a weird category, mostly.  Some of them serve a clear purpose, like when we learned that Trump blabbed to the Russians.  Comey's situation is different, obviously.  Trump accused him of leaking classified information, which is, needless to say, total fucking bullshit.  Most of these leaks, though, are neither true whistle-blower incidents, nor acts that undercut US national security.  Where does that leave them?

For Trump, he hates them because of Miles's law.  For you, as someone who hates Trump (you're reading this blog, and even if you disagree with some of what I say, I fucking hate Trump), you're probably entertained and encouraged.

I try to maintain some consistency in my opinion of leaks since I hate hypocrisy.  As a general rule, I fall back on that equation above, Power+Secrecy=REALLY FUCKING BAD.  I have a bias in favor of leaks, and I'll admit that here.  In order to be convinced against the value of a leak, I need to see specific harm.  One can make that case with Snowden, although that brings in the privacy versus security ideological debate, so your mileage may vary.  One can even make the case with the Nieto and Turnbull phone calls.  This is a balancing act.  At what point does the harm of the act of leaking outweigh the value of the information we learn?

Anyway, something to consider.  The problem with that last question is that I don't know if it can be divorced from the person in power at the time.


  1. It seems like you're ignoring a major component with Trump, though.

    Leaks are very often strategic and political. Not all of the leaks come from the Deep State. A lot of the leaks come from Trump's own people in the White House, as they often do. Leaks are sometimes floating trial balloons in the media, but the real root cause with Trump is because he's a fucking toddler. If I could edit an animated version of myself telling The Boy to stop running off into Blaze and the Monster Machines, I would, because that's the best way to reach the little fucker. Same thing here. El Presidente is off golfing, and in a meeting is looking at Twitter or just masturbating in a corner. You want to actually move official US policy? You get that shit into his brain in the way that works: you have Steve Douchey tell him what to think.

    A LOT of the leaks in this White House are done simply because it's the best way to get your ideas in front of this moron.

    1. I keep reading that story, but I haven't seen anyone quantify it, and the leaks that Sessions is going to try to attack aren't those leaks. He wants to go after the type of people who leaked the Nieto/Turnbull calls, whoever that was. I really want to know how often those "hey boss, look over here" leaks really occur, and how much of that is just Politico-style story-telling and minimally-substantiated conventional wisdom.