The Ukraine war documents leak is a very big deal. Among other things, the documents reveal that the Biden administration has been misleading the public about its upbeat assessment of the Ukrainian war effort. The leak lays bare the extent of US spying on friends and enemies alike, including the United Nations secretary general. It shows that friendly nations dependent on US largesse have quietly been undermining Washington’s geopolitical interests. It makes clear that the world came far closer to unimaginable catastrophe during last year’s September run-in between British and Russian pilots than we were told at the time. And it confirms that the United States and NATO allies do have boots on the ground in the war-torn country in the form of ninety-seven special forces personnel.
But for some reason, that is not what anyone is talking about in response to these leaks.
Rather than the jaw-dropping disclosures, which this brief list only scratches the surface of and which have major implications for US security, the political establishment has instead fixated on the leaker, his motives, his personal faults, and what the government is doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Before we even knew the identity of the leaker, major press institutions like the Washington Post proclaimed the leak a grave violation and threat to national security, practically calling for the leaker’s head on a plate.
Before long, a host of journalists at outlets like NPR and Vice were volunteering their time to help the Department of Justice (DOJ) track down the person responsible, poring over photos for possible clues — acting as “heroes of the hunt,” as one commentator approvingly put it. The New York Times and Washington Post — two outlets, incidentally, that have reported extensively on the content of the leaks, and therefore spread them much further than they otherwise would have gone — finally exposed him to the world last week, revealing details about a twenty-one-year-old National Guard airman who had sent the photos to his gamer buddies on Discord, including a seeming penchant for offensive and racist rhetoric. In the process, as the Intercept’s Nikita Mazurov pointed out, reporters cavalierly made public potentially identifying details that could incriminate the leaker’s teenage associates.
Six years after much of the liberal and media establishment roundly condemned the Intercept for accidentally exposing a leaker and getting her railroaded by Donald Trump’s DOJ, these same voices are cheering on as a different president does the same — and have even been deliberately helping it to do so.
And because no issue can be discussed in today’s US political discourse without having the country’s partisan-coded culture war superimposed, much of the discussion has now devolved into a partisan food fight over whether or not the leaker is really a “whistleblower” or even a “hero.” This isn’t surprising: whenever there’s a major, politically sensitive leak, the political establishment does everything possible to turn the terms of debate to the supposed character deficiencies, both real and imagined, of the leaker. Just look back at the media coverage of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Daniel Ellsberg to be reminded.
This is not an accident. The more time you spend thinking and talking about the leaker and whether or not he’s a good person, the less you’re devoting to the substance of the leaks and the official deception and misbehavior they have shed light on.
But ask yourself: What’s more corrosive to US democracy? That the president secretly put US boots on the ground in an incredibly dangerous, constantly escalating war zone, explicitly breaking a promise in the process and acting against the wishes of the majority of the voting public? Or that the public was finally told about it? If we truly believe that “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” then it makes little sense to vehemently oppose turning on a light. (US officials, for the record, say that the special forces are merely working in the US embassy, but then US officials also told us a week ago Russia was responsible for this leak.)
It also means less time and energy spent on thinking about the years-long, bipartisan war on leaks that this young airman is the latest to be ensnared in. It means no one discusses the government’s now-routine practice of ruining people’s lives over even admittedly inconsequential leaks, and how the point of it is to intimidate future leakers and ensure the political and economic elite can continue to operate in secrecy. The moves we’ve seen to track down and prosecute this leaker closely mirror the punitive response to the explosive 2021 IRS leak that revealed to the public just how little tax the US ultrarich were paying.
As Jacobin’s Ben Burgis recently wrote, “Citizens in a democracy should be able to make informed decisions about their country’s foreign policy.” The terror we’ve seen break out among the establishment over this prospect is a reminder that some of those who most eagerly invoke democracy don’t seem to really believe in it.