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National Security Experts Divided In Response To White House Leaks


As we heard, this White House is concerned about leaks. Longtime observers say they have never seen so much information spilling both from and about an administration. Some national security advocates are alarmed while other insiders applaud what's happening. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Senator John McCain is no great ally of President Trump. Still, when Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats appeared last week before the Armed Services Committee that McCain chairs, the Arizona Republican pressed Coats to publicly condemn the leaks drenching Trump's presidency.


JOHN MCCAIN: These leaks are not good for your business. Isn't that correct?

DAN COATS: That is absolutely correct. They are devastating. And as I have said, disclosing methods and sources put our patriot people who are doing great service for this country - its puts their lives at risk, and it puts the lives of Americans at risk.

WELNA: And yet as recently as a month before winning the election, Trump himself was singing the praises of a group that had not only leaked Hillary Clinton's emails but also made public thousands of classified documents over the years.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: WikiLeaks - I love WikiLeaks.


WELNA: Trump last week heard from British Prime Minister Theresa May how little she loved leaks. That was after police photos from Manchester showed up in The New York Times. The White House then put out a statement declaring leaks of sensitive information a grave threat to national security, saying, quote, "if appropriate, the culprit should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." That came as no surprise to Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer at both the CIA and the National Security Agency.

ROBERT DEITZ: Many administrations, including Donald Trump's, before they get into office, they seem quite supportive of leaks, particularly the ones that seem to verify their own positions. Then as soon as they're brought into office, then, oh, my God, the leaks are the end of civilization as we know it.

WELNA: Adam Schiff is the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee which is investigating Trump's possible ties to Russian dirty tricks. He says the outrage being heard from the Trump White House over leaks is selective.

ADAM SCHIFF: The leaks that the administration's most concerned with are not those that go to national security but those that put them in a bad light or reveal misconduct on their part.

WELNA: Former intelligence agency lawyer Deitz says the anger from the White House is also misdirected.

DEITZ: The president likes to blame the intelligence community for everything up to and may someday include world hunger. But the intelligence community I do not think is a source of most of the leaks that he condemns.

WELNA: And what is?

DEITZ: I think the White House.

WELNA: One former U.S. ambassador who himself had a top security clearance says some leaking is not necessarily a bad thing.

DENNIS JETT: In certain circumstances, leaking is justified.

WELNA: That's Dennis Jett, former top U.S. envoy to Peru and Mozambique. He wonders what might have happened had information not been leaked about phone conversations that Trump's now former national security adviser, Mike Flynn, had with Russia's ambassador to Washington.

JETT: I think what would have happened is Flynn would still be sitting in the White House, still sitting in on meetings at the highest level and still trying to influence policy perhaps on behalf of the Turkish government and still susceptible to blackmail from the Russian ambassador.

WELNA: Another Washington veteran says the plethora of leaks in the Trump administration reflects how worried some insiders have become. Morton Halperin was in the Johnson, Nixon and Clinton administrations at the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council.

MORTON HALPERIN: What we're seeing with Trump is that when people think something really bad has happened or is about to happen, they'll take the risk and leak the information.

WELNA: What that comes down to, laments South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, is people taking the law in their own hands.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: It seems to be that classified information is no longer treated as such and that people are looking for outcomes rather than a process. It's pretty damaging.

WELNA: Could it be that there's too much classified information?

GRAHAM: Could be that we've over-classified stuff. But the way you fix it is that you change the system of classification rather than just leaking.

WELNA: Meanwhile, the leaks show no sign of abating. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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