STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
We turn now to a story that's been dominating the headlines domestically. The Trump administration has been speaking out against a, quote, "culture of leaking in the U.S. government." It's vowed to fight it and bring criminal charges against some leakers. And the Department of Justice has said it's ramping up investigations against leakers, as well. We wanted to get a bit of historical context, so we're joined now by Andrew Rudalevige. He teaches American government at Bowdoin College in Maine. Andrew, thanks for joining us.
ANDREW RUDALEVIGE: Great pleasure. Thanks for having me.
SMITH: So, Andrew, information leaks happen in every administration. How does the Trump White House compare?
RUDALEVIGE: Well, I think the Trump White House feels particularly besieged by leaks. It's not a new phenomenon, as you say. You can find a long history of presidential anger with leaks. LBJ said, this town leaks like a worn-out boot. You know, Richard Nixon created a small group of White House staff called the plumbers to plug those leaks and even wiretapped his own staff. So there's a long list of presidential attempts to deal with leaks. None of them have ever liked leaks except, of course, when they serve their own interests.
SMITH: Well, given all that, is it possible to stop leaks? If you crack down on the leaks, does that work?
RUDALEVIGE: Well, it never has. There are two kinds of leaks really, right? We're talking about on the one hand sort of the inside baseball almost gossipy kind of informational leaks that different parts of government or individuals in government use to wage a policy battle against each other. People can actually be admired for their skill in leaking.
Jim Baker, who was Ronald Reagan's chief of staff, was an expert at putting out the right information at the right time that would help the administration's position. On the other hand, you know, president Reagan, when it was other kinds of leaks hated them. He said famously that he had had it up to his keester with leaks. And he tried to impose polygraph tests, lie detector tests on a big chunk of the executive branch.
SMITH: So there are the kind of more, like, social gossipy leaks. And then what other kinds of leaks are there?
RUDALEVIGE: Right. Well, the other part, of course, is national security leaks. And these are sometimes quite serious. They can, of course, theoretically endanger military operations. They can put in jeopardy intelligence sources. This last week, we had the leak of transcripts of conversations between President Trump and other world leaders. You know, that kind of transcript, when I find it in my scholarly work as a researcher, is pretty exciting. It gives insight into how a president thinks and the way that decisions are made.
But when they're released in real time, they can certainly constrain the ability of the president to enact policy. Right? Confidentiality helps with candor. And we want candor both in the advising process to the president, and we want world leaders to be able to discuss things frankly with the president without worrying that their discussions are going to wind up publicized well before history might be able to pay attention to that.
SMITH: What about the idea of going after leakers, of criminal prosecution?
RUDALEVIGE: It happens rarely. You know, there's a big gap between the possibilities in law of going after leakers and the reality of it over time. But the Espionage Act, which is the strongest tool the government has against national security leaks, you know, is a hundred years old this year. And there have been only about a dozen prosecutions under that act in that time.
SMITH: I mean, on the one hand, it does seem like leaks can be good and give essential information in a democracy, help keep the government honest. But on the other hand, leaks can be really dangerous. I mean, is it a net positive or a net negative?
RUDALEVIGE: Well, I think in general, the more information the public has about government workings, the better. That doesn't mean there aren't exceptions. But, you know, leaks tend to decline when there's collegiality inside the White House and when there's a deliberative decision-making process that allows people to air their views and feel that they're being heard. Again, I can only judge from leaks, but it seems that the Trump White House is struggling to put in place that kind of decision-making process. Maybe the elevation of John Kelly to White House chief of staff will help with that.
SMITH: Andrew Rudalevige is a professor of government at Bowdoin College. Andrew, thank you.
RUDALEVIGE: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.
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