“I think national security is put at risk by this leak and leaks like this.”
That was H.R. McMaster, talking to reporters on Tuesday morning. President Trump’s national security advisor was not referring, in this case, to the president’s reported leak of classified intelligence to Russian officials, during a meeting in the White House—a leak that The Washington Post, corroborated by several other news outlets, first revealed on Monday evening. McMaster was instead talking in more multi-dimensional terms, about the leaking of the leaks—about the actions of the anonymous sources who first informed the Post about the Oval Office intelligence breach.
You’d be forgiven, however, for confusion on that front. “Leak” is, as accusations go, itself fairly fluid. It shape-shifts. While it may call to mind the most straightforward of structural problems—trickles that threaten to become floods, ships that threaten to be sunk by that unlikeliest of torpedoes—the “leak” varies in its implications. Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Mark Felt, WikiLeaks, “individuals with knowledge of the situation” … to some they are villains. To others they are heroes.
In the case of the Oval Office revelations, though, the question isn’t simply a matter of the leak’s validity; it’s more basically a matter of what constituted the leak in the first place. As one framing—the one used in news stories from the Post and other outlets, and often by Democratic lawmakers—goes, the relevant “leak” here was sprung by the president himself, as he boasted to Russian leaders about the access to intelligence he enjoys as president. The other framing—the one used by McMaster, and by pundits on Fox News, and often by Republican lawmakers—sees the “leaker” in question not as Trump, but rather as the anonymous people who shared the news of his revelations to the media. (Fox contributor Fred Fleitz: “Yes, there’s a scandal here. It concerns former and current U.S. officials leaking classified information to the press to undermine a U.S. president.”)