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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 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.
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 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, was responsible for leaking 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.
- 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.
- Spies for Peace, a group of anti-war activists associated with CND and the Committee of 100 who publicized 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 would take 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