A news leak is the unsanctioned release of confidential information to news media. It can also be the premature publication of information by a news outlet, of information that it has agreed not to release before a specified time, in violation of a news embargo.
Leaks are often made by employees of an organization who happened to have access to interesting information but who are not officially authorized to disclose it to the press. They may believe that doing so is in the public interest due to the need for speedy publication, because it otherwise would not have been able to be made public, or to rally opinion to their side of an internal debate. This type of leak is common; as former White House advisor Sidney Souers advised a young scholar in 1957, "there are no leaks in Washington, only plants."
On the other hand, leaks can sometimes be made simply as self-promotion, to elevate the leaker as a person of importance. Leaks can be intentional or unintentional. A leaker may be doing the journalist a personal favor (possibly in exchange for future cooperation), or simply wishes to disseminate secret information in order to affect the news. The latter type of leak is often made anonymously.
Sometimes partial information is released to the media off the record in advance of a press release to "prepare" the press or the public for the official announcement. This may also be intended to allow journalists more time to prepare more extensive coverage, which can then be published immediately after the official release. This technique is designed to maximize the impact of the announcement. It might be considered an element of political 'spin', or news management.
Some people who leak information to the media are seeking to manipulate coverage. Cloaking information in secrecy may make it seem more valuable to journalists, and anonymity reduces the ability of others to cross-check or discredit the information.
Some leaks are made in the open; for example, politicians who (whether inadvertently or otherwise) disclose classified or confidential information while speaking to the press.
Leaks can have strong consequences. President Richard M. Nixon was enraged by the existence of leaks, and according to his former staffer William Safire, that rage coupled with the president's lifelong disdain of the press set the environment that led to Nixon's downfall. Most immediately, fear of further leaks after the Pentagon Papers were published in 1971, such as of the Secret Bombing of Cambodia, led to the formation of the "White House Plumbers" unit (so named because they wanted to fix leaks), which conducted the break-in that led to the Watergate scandal and Nixon's eventual resignation in 1974.
There are many reasons why information might be leaked. Some of these include:
- Politicians and policy makers may wish to judge the reaction of the public to their plans before committing (a trial balloon). Leaked information may be plausibly denied without blame for proposed unpopular measures affecting their perpetrators.
- People with access to confidential information may find it to their advantage to make it public, without themselves appearing to be responsible for publishing the information. For example, information which will embarrass political opponents, or cause damage to national security, may be leaked.
- People privy to secret information about matters which they consider to be morally wrong or against the public interest — often referred to as "whistleblowers" — may leak the information.
- People may be enticed to expose secret information for other self-serving motives, such as financial gain.
- The Panama Papers, confidential documents leaked on 3 April 2016 regarding offshore tax havens
- The Paradise Papers, confidential documents leaked on 5 November 2017 regarding offshore tax havens
- The FinCEN Files collection of FinCEN documents brought to the public's attention in September 2020.
- Leaks to the press were commonly made by both sides of the U.S. government's internal debate during August 1949–January 1950 regarding whether to proceed with development of the hydrogen bomb.
- The Pentagon Papers, a top-secret United States Department of Defense history of the United States' political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Made public on the front page of the New York Times in 1971.
- A source known as Deep Throat, later identified as FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt, leaked information related to the Watergate scandal to The Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.
- Columnist Robert Novak published a leak, outing CIA agent Valerie Plame in 2003.
- As reported in the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, the CIA deliberately planted false stories with the media to mislead the public, while claiming the stories were leaked.
- The United States diplomatic cables leak of November 2010 in which the organisation WikiLeaks began releasing details of 251,287 US diplomatic cables provided to them by Chelsea Manning.
- The NSA leaks in June 2013, in which NSA employee Edward Snowden leaked secret documents exposing the American PRISM and the British Tempora, clandestine espionage programs.
- The Vault 7 leaks of March 2017 in which the CIA employee Joshua Adam Schulte leaked secret documents exposing the capabilities of the CIA to perform electronic surveillance and cyber warfare.
- Spies for Peace, a group of British anti-war activists associated with CND and the Committee of 100 who publicised government preparations for rule after a nuclear war. In 1963 they broke into a secret government bunker where they photographed and copied documents. They published this information in a pamphlet, Danger! Official Secret RSG-6. Four thousand copies were sent to the national press, politicians and peace movement activists.
- The NSA leaks in June 2013, in which NSA employee Edward Snowden leaked secret documents exposing the British Tempora and the American PRISM clandestine espionage programs.
- Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear technician who revealed details of Israel's nuclear weapons program to the British press in 1986.
- Anat Kamm leaked classified documents from the Israeli Defense Force in 2008, which suggested the Israeli military had been engaged in extrajudicial killings.
- At the time of the Spanish coup of July 1936, the takeover of the Spanish Republican Navy by coup leaders failed mainly because the messages calling for a coup against the Spanish Republic were not sent in code, as would have been the norm, from Ciudad Lineal to the senior officers commanding the ships. Navy radiotelegrapher Benjamin Balboa took credit for the news leak.
Books and references
- Blair Jr., Clay, Silent Victory: The US Submarine War against Japan, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001
- Lanning, Michael Lee (Lt. Col.), Senseless Secrets: The Failures of U.S. Military Intelligence from George Washington to the Present, Carol Publishing Group, 1995
- Jones, David A. U.S. Media and Elections in Flux: Dynamics and Strategies. Routledge, 2016, p. 57
- Young, Ken; Schilling, Warner R. (2019). Super Bomb: Organizational Conflict and the Development of the Hydrogen Bomb. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. pp. 55–56, 154.
- News Leaks Remain Divisive, But Libby Case has Little Impact. Leaks Seen as Motivated More by Personal Than Political Reasons. Pew Research Center, April 5, 2007
- Safire, William (1977). Before the Fall: An Insider View of the Pre-Watergate White House (Paperback, with new introduction ed.). New York: Ballantine Books. pp. 376–379.
- LaFeber, Walter (1989). The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad Since 1750. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 601, 609.
- Mazzetti, Mark (December 9, 2014). "Senate Torture Report Condemns C.I.A. Interrogation Program". The New York Times. Retrieved June 9, 2014.
- Johnson, Loch K.; Aldrich, Richard J.; Moran, Christopher; Barrett, David M.; Hastedt, Glenn; Jervis, Robert; Krieger, Wolfgang; McDermott, Rose; Omand, David (2014-08-08). "AnINSSpecial Forum: Implications of the Snowden Leaks" (PDF). Intelligence and National Security. 29 (6): 793–810. doi:10.1080/02684527.2014.946242. ISSN 0268-4527.
- Greenberg, Andy (2017-03-07). "How the CIA Can Hack Your Phone, PC, and TV (Says WikiLeaks)". WIRED.
- "Who Is Joshua Adam Schulte? Former CIA Employee Charged Over Vault 7 Leak". Newsweek. 19 June 2018.
- La Flota Es Roja