President Donald Trump’s new CIA Director, former Congressman Mike Pompeo, has just become a thorn in the administration’s side as major political battles loom toward the end of April. As liberals and conservatives prepare to do budget battle ahead of an April 28 deadline that could result in a shutdown of the federal government, the Trump administration needs to avoid doing anything to further antagonize Democrats…or members of his own party. Pompeo has thrown a potential wrench into the works by highlighting an area of debate where liberal and conservative lawmakers often make strange bedfellows: The intersection of surveillance and free speech.
At issue is the controversial online entity known as WikiLeaks, which is popular for publicly releasing intelligence documents. WikiLeaks describes itself as a “whistleblower” organization, bringing to light the dark side of government, political, and financial activities. Since its founding in October 2006, the website has leaked lots of classified information about U.S. government activities, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, operations of the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and many diplomatic cables.
In 2016, WikiLeaks made headlines by releasing emails sent among members of the Democratic National Committee that revealed an unethical favoritism toward primary election candidate Hillary Clinton versus challenger Bernie Sanders. This revelation, which occurred in July, was quickly seized upon by the Republican Party, especially presidential nominee Donald Trump, as a cudgel with which to batter Democratic nominee Clinton. Trump tried to drive a rift between centrist Democrats and pro-Sanders progressives by frequently pointing out that the Democratic Party had run an unfair game.
Along with many Republicans, Mike Pompeo eagerly praised WikiLeaks for bringing to light the deceptions of the DNC.
Now, however, both Pompeo and Trump are criticizing WikiLeaks…and leaks in general. Now, this is not unexpected: Challengers always love leaks that paint the incumbent administration as incompetent, abusive, or corrupt. Until January, Republicans were the challengers and Democrats were the incumbents. Leaked emails, photos, and diplomatic cables tended to hurt the Obama administration, not the GOP. But in January, the GOP took control of the White House…and any new leaks will make them look bad. It’s hardly worth pointing out the flip-flop when Donald Trump goes from gleefully tweeting about political and government leaks in the fall to condemning them in the spring.
But when Mike Pompeo says WikiLeaks can no longer hide behind “free speech” arguments, he broaches a very complex and dangerous topic. While liberals and conservatives can be bitter enemies when it comes to fiscal and social issues, both sides tend to be firmly allied when it comes to protecting free speech. WikiLeaks has responded to Pompeo’s condemnation by declaring that the CIA director is trying to stifle free speech, which will perk the ears of both Democrats and Republicans.
Pompeo has characterized WikiLeaks not as a whistleblower, but as a “hostile intelligence service” of foreign governments that are seeking to destabilize the United States, likely by undermining American citizens’ faith in its federal government. His commentary suggests that the Trump administration will consider anyone who contributes information to WikiLeaks not as a whistleblower, but as a traitor. By extension, virtually any whistleblower could be considered traitorous.
For a self-styled populist like Donald Trump, the recent condemnation of “traitorous” whistleblowing runs counter to his image. In the opening hours of his administration, he criticized his predecessors as operating with little regard for the common man. Trump insisted that he would return the power to the people. But when his CIA director tries to hypocritically silence WikiLeaks less than a year after he praised it for revealing the Democratic Party’s rule-breaking, it no longer seems that his administration is very concerned about being open and honest with the common man.
This about-face on radical transparency will likely hurt the Trump administration coming into the post-Easter budget fight. Not only does it provoke internal divisions within the GOP, such as Trump ally Roger Stone calling for Pompeo’s resignation, but it raises questions about the ability and willingness of the president’s administration to implement transparency. Coming out swinging against WikiLeaks so early into Trump’s administration implies that the White House has little intention of playing foreign or domestic policy by the rule book.
Trump critics in both parties may harden their resolve to oppose the president’s budget proposals after Pompeo’s harsh comments, and may also question the wisdom of trying to shut down what could be used as a potent tool for American interests. If WikiLeaks is allegedly pitted against America, why not test the hypothesis by having U.S. government hackers submit to the site sensitive documents about Russian, Chinese, Syrian, or North Korea activities? In the game of international public relations, the United States can benefit by having a world-renowned whistleblowing site to which it can submit evidence of foreign malfeasance.
Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump should focus on cleaning up America’s act and using WikiLeaks as a way to expose foreign rivals for their own bad deeds.