“If someone morally disagrees with the policy of government and unilaterally reveals a secret just because they believe it to be morally wrong, that puts our government on an unstable or anarchic path,” says Rahul Sagar, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University and the author of the forthcoming book “Secrets and Leaks: the Dilemma of State Secrecy.”
“If someone can just break regulations whenever they don’t like them, then what’s the point of having regulations,” he adds. “OK, I don’t like nuclear weapons, so I’ll reveal their locations. I don’t like the president’s Air Force One, so I’ll reveal its flight itinerary. Government can’t tolerate this. You try to change the law. You don’t just break the law.”
Behind the Obama team’s toughened stance toward leakers, say experts on both sides, are three key developments. One is the advent of mass leaks of classified information, made possible by digital technology. Another is better tools for tracking down those who leak. And the third is an overheated political environment that, coupled with overclassification of documents as secret, makes it difficult for the administration to use a softer touch.
Before the Digital Age, leakers could get their hands on a classified document or two. Now, it’s possible to store thousands of documents on a tiny thumb-drive or a CD, making a single leak much more damaging than in the past.
“When you have so much more access to communications and information, it makes it so much easier to leak,” says James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank.