What Are ‘Leaks’ That So Anger President Trump?

17 February, 2017

President Donald Trump went on Twitter Thursday to talk about his continued concern about leaks. He wrote, "The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers? They will be caught!"

The president then said later Thursday that he "called the Justice Department to look into the leaks."

Trump has been very critical of leaks from people identified in stories as U.S. intelligence officials, though some may have come from White House aides.

The information provided to the New York Times and Washington Post, among others, covered discussions between Trump's now former national security adviser and a Russian diplomat.

The former adviser, Michael Flynn, had told Vice President Mike Pence the discussion with the Russian diplomat did not include talk of U.S. sanctions. The intelligence officials who spoke to reporters said Flynn was not being truthful.

News that Flynn had not been truthful led to his resignation, Trump said Thursday. But he called Flynn, "a fine person."

Leaks have long been a tradition in America. It means giving information to reporters.

Often the information would not be known unless it was "leaked" to reporters. And often the people providing the information do not want their names released for fear of losing their jobs or facing other punishment.

Trump is not the first president to speak out against leaks.

President Richard Nixon had many battles with news organizations. The Obama administration aggressively investigated suspected leakers, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"People in power never like leakers, whether we're talking about President Trump or former President Obama," said Roy Gutterman. He is director of the Tully Center for Free Press at Syracuse University in New York.

Notable leaks in US history

The kind of leaks Trump is criticizing is not new.

In 1973, Daniel Ellsberg gave reporters information from a secret report that the U.S. expanded the war in Vietnam without informing the public. Ellsberg, who had helped write the report, known as "The Pentagon Papers," said Americans had a right to know.

Two Washington Post reporters received information from a source known only as "Deep Throat." They reported stories about the cover-up of a break-in into Democratic Party headquarters. The news stories led to President Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974. Many years later, "Deep Throat" was identified as a Federal Bureau of Investigation official.

Washington Post reporters Carl Berstein and Bob Woodward at 2009 memorial for
Washington Post reporters Carl Berstein and Bob Woodward at 2009 memorial for "Deep Throat."

In 2013, Edward Snowden, a contractor with the National Security Agency, gave thousands of documents to WikiLeaks. The documents provided information about U.S. government surveillance practices. After the release, Snowden left the U.S. for Russia.

Stories often start with call from concerned person

Many important stories start with call from a person who says something is not right where they work or live. Calls from doctors and nurses at U.S. veterans' hospitals, for example, led to reporting in 2014 that officials were hiding long waits for medical care.

"Often the confidential information provided by a source leads a reporter to reach out to other sources and to get documents so that a story that should be known to the public gets out," said Gutterman of Syracuse University.

But Trump said recent leaks provided information about his discussions with foreign leaders that he considered private.

He called it "a criminal act."

Trump has called for an investigation of leaks. So have two Republican members of Congress -- Jason Chaffetz and Bob Goodlatte in a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice.

They expressed concern about release of "classified information."

Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat, said that Chaffetz and Goodlatte are asking for the wrong investigation.

"Congress should be doing independent oversight of the executive branch and protecting whistleblowers," he said.

In the past, some reporters who refused to identify their sources went to prison. Among the most recent was former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who served 85 days in prison in 2005 for not saying who gave her the name of a Central Intelligence Agency agent.

Reporter Judith Miller receives a kiss from attorney Robert Bennett in 2005.
Reporter Judith Miller receives a kiss from attorney Robert Bennett in 2005.

At a Thursday news conference, Trump continued his criticism of the news media. The president said, "the leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake."

During the 77-minute long news conference, he used the term "fake" news 13 times. This led a reporter to ask:

"If the information coming from those leaks is real, then how can the stories be fake?"

I'm Bruce Alpert.

And I'm Dorothy Gundy.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

leak - n. disclosure of information not known previously often from a person who doesn't want his or her name known

source - n. a person who provides information to a reporter, often without revealing his or her name

surveillance - n. to keep careful watch of people

practice - n. how things are done by an organization

classified - adj. information considered secret by a government or government agency

oversight - n. to provide review of activities by people and or government

whistleblower - n. a person who provides secret information about bad or illegal activity

booster - n. someone that supports or champions someone or some group