President Obama has reportedly unveiled a creepy and controversial program to undercut leaks within the federal government. Like President George W. Bush—who also sought to wage war on leakers—Obama’s initiative is doomed to fail. The federal government employs almost 4.5 million people. Granted, that’s off the all-time high of 1968, but it still represents a huge amount of fat, and it doesn’t include the ballooning amount of private contractors. Indeed, perhaps 4 million people hold “top secret” clearance including, as the Washington Post noted, packers and craters.
At the same time, outlets for leaks have expanded rapidly. Any government official is just an email away. Local papers might be dying, but a whole generation of bloggers and Washington-based journalists rely on receiving leaks in order to do their jobs. Hardly a Starbucks exists in central Washington in which government officials can’t on occasion be heard discussing issues that are probably classified: it is an irony of the onerous and uncoordinated security procedures to enter each other’s office buildings that leads bureaucrats and appointees to find an unsecured middle ground.
In the meantime, smuggling information out is easier than ever. Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Edward Snowden reportedly used an illegal thumb drive, as did alleged WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning. Computer networks allow analysts to acquire reams of documents. No longer do spies (or leakers) need miniature cameras, nor do they need to meet in underground parking garages.
Anyone who has ever worked in the federal government knows just how bizarre people can be. It gets worse in the intelligence community, where the culture of secrecy often allows the bizarre to thrive. As some high-profile retirees demonstrate, those who spent decades poring over foreign communications, speeches, and intercepts can often absorb some of the biases and conspiracies of the societies they studied. Those who have also worked in the government also are daily witness to tremendous waste and bureaucratic fat. Parkinson’s Law is alive and well. The simple fact is that the government could likely work just as well with less.
Perhaps it’s time for Obama and, indeed, any administration to recognize that leaks are proportional to the size of the government and compounded by the size of databases and the increasingly large groups of people able to access them. If the government wants to reduce leaks, the easiest and most effective path would be less government. That would take the strain off background investigators and allow the government both to reduce access and make leaks of such material more easily traceable.