The 'Leak' in the Age of Alternative Facts

From Ben Franklin to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to H.R. McMaster, a brief history of a weaponized word

IanRedding / Shutterstock

“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.”)

President Trump, of course, has used the latter frame. As he tweeted on Tuesday morning:

The president’s frustration with “leakers” has been a theme not just in the aftermath of the Post report, but throughout his presidency. It is an anger shared by many, in government and in the military, who have argued that governing itself requires some level of secrecy to operate effectively. But it is also an argument has been turned against the president himself in the day following the Post revelation. “Leaks,” in this story, have been weaponized, by both sides—and in ways that are entirely oppositional to each other. Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, captured it well when he remarked, of the leaks about the leaks: I think it was President Trump who not that long ago tweeted, ‘We need to track down every leaker.’ Now we find out that the leaker is the commander-in-chief.

* * *

“Leak” wasn’t always so bleak. The word itself—it comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *leg (“to dribble, trickle”)—has spent most of its life, in the informational sense of the revealed secret, being notably neutral. It was Noah Webster who seems to have been the first to codify that secretive strain of “leak,” as a verb, in 1832, in the second volume of his Dictionary of the English Language: He defined it then as “to leak out, to find vent; to escape privately from confinement or secresy; as a fact or report.” It was a new term that was describing an ancient practice. Freeing information from its confining “secresy” has been a legally codified (and occasionally remunerative) activity, according to one history, since the year 695, when King Wihtred of Kent enshrined a law declaring, “If a freeman works during [the Sabbath], he shall forfeit his [profits], and the man who informs against him shall have half the fine, and [the profits] of the labor.”

The practice is a longstanding one in America, as well. In 1773, Ben Franklin obtained letters, written by the royally appointed governor of Massachusetts, suggesting that the governor had misled Parliament in order promote a military buildup in the American Colonies. The letters were printed in the Boston Gazette, and caused a firestorm on both sides of the Atlantic. Before they were, though, their contents were teasingly publicized—by Sam Adams, using a mode of communication we might refer to today as “strategic leaking.” How did Franklin get the letters in the first place? From, yes, a leaker—one who remains, still, anonymous.

This form of patriotic tattling may have been common in the Colonies; still, it would take “leaking” more than a century to take on the political connotations that are, today, the default in our discourse. Until the mid-20th century, something simply “leaked out,” without intention or malice or, indeed, subject—as an accident of physics, or perhaps as a broad ratification of Stewart Brand’s adage that “information wants to be free.” In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first published in 1852, Augustine St. Clare compares his twin brother, Alfred, to their father: “I can see it leaking out in fifty different ways,” Augustine tells his cousin, Ophelia—“just that same strong, overbearing, dominant spirit.” In 1884’s Vivienne: A Novel, “The carefully-guarded secret had leaked out in some way or other.”

But then, in the 1950s, the secretive “leak” transformed—into a noun. And that appears to have been the point at which it took on its expressly political connotations. The political scientist H. D. Lasswell, in a 1950 issue of National Security, noted that “Americans are accustomed to ‘government by leak.’” A 1957 issue of The Economist mentioned the “understandable indignation” brought forth by “the allegation of a ‘leak’ about last Thursday’s increase in Bank rate.” In 1973, The Guardian offered a delightfully droll take on the new noun: “The EEC Commission,” the paper noted, “spent an hour and a half … discussing leaks and how to plug them (or so it is reliably leaked to Miscellany).”

The “leak,” ever since, has implied not just secrets revealed, but secrets revealed by someone, for some purpose. It has also come to suggest, in its meek quartet of letters, a kind of internal combat: The leak, the secret revealed in spite of itself, is contentious, and vaguely martial. It suggests a battle that has been lost—or, seen in the other way, won. You don’t merely leak something, after all; you leak something against the wishes of someone else. You take the secret, and make it public. The struggle—and the doubled perspective—are built into the word.  Politico, after Edward Snowden leaked secrets about the NSA to media outlets, ran a slideshow of history’s notable leakers. It titled the show, tellingly, “10 Famous/Infamous Whistleblowers.”

Because of the high stakes, though, leaking is often an action of last resort. It’s the thing you do when you see a problem, try to fix it internally, and fail. Here is Erick Erickson, the conservative commentator, writing on The Resurgent about the Post’s leak report and seeming to corroborate the paper’s reporting:

What sets this story apart for me, at least, is that I know one of the sources. And the source is solidly supportive of President Trump, or at least has been and was during Campaign 2016. But the President will not take any internal criticism, no matter how politely it is given. He does not want advice, cannot be corrected, and is too insecure to see any constructive feedback as anything other than an attack.

So some of the sources are left with no other option but to go to the media, leak the story, and hope that the intense blowback gives the President a swift kick in the butt. Perhaps then he will recognize he screwed up. The President cares vastly more about what the press says than what his advisers say. That is a real problem and one his advisers are having to recognize and use, even if it causes messy stories to get outside the White House perimeter.

And yet “leaking,” for all those stakes, is a word that means so much, nowadays, that it threatens to mean nothing. That’s the paradox of the leak—the one on display when, for example, the man one White House correspondent called “the leaker-in-chief” takes to Twitter to talk about the need to find the “leakers” in his government. And the one on display when the national security advisor gives a press conference about leaks being leaked. “Leaks” might refer to brave, self-sacrificial truth-telling. “Leaks” might refer to breaches of security. “Leaks” might refer to spin. “Leaks” might refer to lies.

In 1982, in a New York Times column on the matter, William Safire noted that “the President is furious about leaks. The Secretary of State is incensed at all the leaking. Pentagon legend has it that Deputy Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci sports a lie detector strapped to his arm at all times to demonstrate that he is not a leaker.” The more things change, yes, but also: Safire, in his column, worried that something had shifted, when it came to leaking—that there was a thinning line, even then, between leaks and propaganda. He worried about the ease with which misinformation can spread. He worried about the fate of facts. He worried about leaks getting weaponized in a bigger kind of war. “With a manipulator at the controls,” Safire wrote, in his revealing essay about revelations, “truth has taken a beating.”