Every administration faces leaks, and no administration likes them. The Obama administration went further than its predecessors in launching criminal prosecutions of national security leakers, but the Trump administration appears to be positively obsessed with both leaks and leaking in a very different way. There are two big signs of that right now.
First, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster wrote a memo demanding anti-leak action not only from the security services but from civilian agencies as well. It takes on leaks of classified information, then also asserts that “unauthorized disclosure” of “controlled unclassified” information “causes harm to our Nation and shakes the confidence of the American people.”
Second, that memo — which went out a few days ago — leaked Wednesday night to BuzzFeed News’s Chris Geidner, because in the Trump administration everything leaks.
What the memo says
The core of the memo is a request that the heads of every agency of the federal government — not just the CIA and such but the Department of Labor and the Council on Environmental Quality — “dedicate a 1-hour, organization-wide event to engage their workforce in a discussion on the importance of protecting classified and controlled unclassified information, and measures to prevent and detect unauthorized disclosures.”
McMaster offers various suggestions for possible training material, including a 15-minute C-SPAN clip of Attorney General Jeff Sessions giving a press conference about leaks and a six-minute video of Fox News interviewing the National Counterintelligence and Security Center’s director.
Back on September 10, Axios reported that Sessions suggested giving polygraph tests to government officials in order to suss out the leakers. Scientists say polygraphs don’t work and since they don’t work they can’t be used as evidence in court. But law enforcement likes them, and we all know the Trump administration loves law enforcement.
The bigger story of the memo, however, is not the anti-leaking methods so much as the broad scope of the leaks that are targeted. To disclose classified information to unauthorized personnel is, of course, illegal. That’s the whole point. But McMaster is targeting leaks of nonclassified information (like his own memo which, of course, leaked), which aren’t illegal.
The fact that we’re even talking about this underscores how unlikely it is that the anti-leak efforts will work.
Why Trump can’t stop leaks
Fundamentally, the Trump administration is going to be unable to stop leaks as long as media attention is the coin of the realm in the Trump White House.
The president is not well-versed in policy and does not have personal relationships with the majority of his Cabinet secretaries and their top subordinates. He doesn’t spend his downtime immersing himself in briefing materials or written memos, and there’s little indication that he’s interested in rolling up his sleeves to really familiarize himself with the work of rank-and-file government employees.
Instead, Trump likes to scan the headlines, watch television, and talk on the phone with his network of outside friends and acquaintances who, in turn, get their own information from the media.
That means if you have an agenda you want to press with Trump, you need to press it through the media. If it’s on the front page of the New York Times or prominent on a cable news morning show, Trump may see it. If it’s buried in some briefing document, he probably won’t. So information directly leaks to the press as a way of getting information in front of Trump.
But information also leaks to the press because members of his administration need to cultivate good relationships with journalists in order to be able to get stories that they want out there. The high volume of weirdly credulous reporting on Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump (who employ their own publicist), for example, strongly suggests that they are also the source of some less flattering material that leaks out there.
With the president’s own kids playing the leaks game and the president obsessed with media coverage, everyone else knows that it’s essentially leak or die in the Trump administration. Memos can’t stop that.
Full text of the leaked anti-leaking memo
SUBJECT: Request for Provision of Training on Unauthorized Disclosures
The unauthorized disclosure of classified information or controlled unclassified United States Government information causes harm to our Nation and shakes the confidence of the American people. In this era of unprecedented unauthorized disclosures, it is important to take time to review with your workforce their roles and responsibilities in safeguarding United States Government information.
In light of the recent press conference by the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence regarding unauthorized disclosures, I am requesting that every Federal Government department and agency dedicate a 1-hour, organization-wide event to engage their workforce in a discussion on the importance of protecting classified and controlled unclassified information, and measures to prevent and detect unauthorized disclosures.
For those with access to classified information, a review of the non-disclosure agreement reminds us of the responsibilities that come with access to, and penalties for unauthorized disclosure of, classified information. However, it is equally important to discuss the importance of protecting controlled unclassified and personally identifiable information from unauthorized public disclosure.
Although there are policies and guidance already in place to prevent unauthorized disclosures, it will be time well spent to shine a spotlight on the importance of this issue, and engage the workforce in conversation about what it means to be a steward of United States Government information. It is particularly important to stress the sharp difference between unauthorized disclosures of information and whistleblowing — the responsibility of all federal employees to report waste, fraud and abuse through proper channels.
There are many resources available to frame this 1-hour event, including a review of policies, guidance, videos, and training materials, and perhaps most important, an open discussion to answer questions and raise issues to ensure that our safeguarding measures are understood and effective.
Suggested training materials are attached. In order to ensure a consistent and strong message is given to the entire federal workforce, such training should occur the week of September 18-22, 2017.
Lieutenant General, United States Army
Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs