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"Edward Snowden at Upper Canada College, World Affairs Conference 2015" by RogerSheaffe is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

James Comey, former Director of the FBI, recently testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding conversations that he had with President Trump. The public knew some of the details from these conversations before Comey’s testimony, because he had written down his recollections in memos, and portions of these memos were leaked to the press. We now know that Comey himself was responsible for leaking the memos. He reportedly did so to force the Department of Justice to appoint a special prosecutor. It turned out that his gamble was successful, as Robert Mueller was appointed special prosecutor to lead the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

After the testimony, President Trump blasted Comey as a Leaker. He tweeted, “Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication…and WOW, Comey is a leaker!” Trump later tweeted that Comey’s leaking was “Very ‘cowardly!’” Trump’s antipathy towards leaking makes sense against the background of the unprecedented number of leaks occurring during his term in office. It seems as if there is a new leak every day. Given the politically damaging nature of these leaks, supporters of the president have been quick to condemn them as endangering national security, and to call for prosecutions of these leakers. Just recently, NSA contractor Reality Winner was charged under the Espionage Act for leaking classified materials to the press. However, it is worth remembering that, during the election campaign, then-candidate Trump praised Wikileaks on numerous occasions for its release of the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee.

A cynical reading of this recent chain of events suggests that the stance that government figures take towards the ethics of leaking is purely motivated by politics. Leaking is good when it damages a political opponent. Leaking is bad when it damages a political ally.  Sadly, this may be a true analysis of politicians’ shifting stances towards leakers. However, it does not answer the underlying question as to whether leaking can ever be morally permissible and, if it can be, under what circumstances might it be?

Approaches may differ, but I think it is reasonable to ask this question in a way that assumes that government leaking requires special justification. This is for two reasons. First, the leaking of classified information is almost always a violation of federal law. Leaking classified information violates the Espionage Act, which sets out penalties of imprisonment for individuals who disclose classified information to those not entitled to receive it. As a general moral rule, individuals ought to obey all laws, unless a special justification exists for their violation. General conformity to the law ensures an order and stability necessary to the safety, security, and well-being of the nation. More specifically, the Espionage Act is intended to protect the nation’s security. Leaking classified information to the press risks our nation’s intelligence operations by potentially exposing our sources and methods to hostile foreign governments.

Second, as Stephen L. Carter of Bloomberg points out, “leakers are liars,” and there is a strong moral presumption against lying. Carter provides a succinct explanation: “The leaker goes to work every day and implicitly tells colleagues, ‘You can trust me with Secret A.’ Then the leaker, on further consideration, decides to share Secret A with the world. The next day the leaker goes back to work and says, ‘You can trust me with Secret B.’ But it’s a lie. The leaker cannot be trusted.”

The strong presumption against lying flows from the idea that morality requires that we do not make an exception of ourselves in our actions. We generally want and expect others to tell us the truth; we have no right ourselves, then, to be cavalier with the truth when speaking with others. Lying may sometimes be justified, but it requires strong reasons in its favor.

Ethical leaking might be required to meet two standards: (A) the leak is intended to achieve a public good that overrides the moral presumption lying and law-breaking, or (B) leaking is the only viable option to achieving this public good. What public good does leaking often promote? Defenders of leaks often argue that leaking reveals information that the public needs to know to hold their leaders accountable for wrongdoing. Famous leaker Edward Snowden, for example, revealed information concerning the surveillance capabilities of the National Security Agency (NSA); it is arguable that the public needed to know this information to have an informed debate on the acceptable limits of government surveillance and its relation to freedom and security.

Since leaking often involves lying and breaking the law, it must be considered whether other options exist, besides leaking, to promote the public good at issue. Government figures who criticize leakers often claim that they have avenues within the government to protest wrong-doing. Supporters of Snowden’s actions pointed out, however, that legal means to expose the NSA’s surveillance programs were not open to him because, as a contractor, he did not have the same whistleblower protections as do government employees and because NSA’s programs were considered completely legal by the US government at the time. Leaking appeared to be his only viable option for making the information public.

Each act of leaking appears to require a difficult moral calculation. How much damage will my leaking do to the efforts of the national security team? How important is it for the public to know this classified information? How likely is it that I could achieve my goals through legal means within the government system? Though a moral presumption against leaking may exist—you shouldn’t leak classified information for just any old reason—leaking in the context of an unaccountable government engaged in serious wrongdoing has been justified in the past, and I expect we will see many instances in the future where government leaks will be justified.

"Barry Goldwater Statuary Hall" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The September/October 1964 issue of Fact magazine was dedicated to the then Republican nominee for president, Barry Goldwater, and his fitness for office. One of the founders of Fact, Ralph Ginzburg, had sent out a survey to over 12,000 psychiatrists asking a single question: “Do you believe Barry Goldwater is psychologically fit to serve as President of the United States?” Only about 2,400 responses were received, and about half of the responses indicated that Goldwater was not psychologically fit to be president. The headline of that issue of Fact read: “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater is Psychologically Unfit to be President!”

March participants on the National Mall. All photos by Conner Gordon.

On a day that ironically, or appropriately, broke temperature records, over 200,000 people flocked to the nation’s capital to participate in The People’s Climate March. The march date coincided with President Trump’s 100th day in office, often considered a landmark in every presidency. However, President Trump was not present to observe the massive demonstration, but instead held rallies in support of his presidency in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Regardless of Trump, the People’s Climate March aimed to send a bigger message about the importance of environmental protection and climate action. However, like any large protest, the motivations and perspectives of individuals participating differed.

"Border USA Mexico" by Gordon Hyde is licensed under CC0 Public Domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

In California, farm owners took a big gamble without knowing it: they voted for Donald Trump. Now, in lieu of receiving a cutback in taxes and regulations, they are at risk of losing their labor force. Thus, their profits might take a hit too, if there are not enough hands to gather the harvest. The danger President Trump poses to California farmers is that, contrary to farm owners’ predictions, he appears to be following through on his campaign promise to curb illegal immigration – and the amount of illegal immigrants in the United States – through mass deportations. The reason why California farmers’ labor force might end up in Trump’s crosshairs is because an estimated 70% of California farmworkers are residing and working in the country illegally. However, it is not just farm owners who would be affected by deportations, but also the local, state, and national economies, which have come to rely on the workers’ spending and manpower.

"People's Climate March 2014 NYC" by South Bend Voice is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (via Flickr)

Mere days away from The People’s Climate March in Washington D.C., at least 100,000 people are estimated to march in the streets. One quick Google search of “Climate March D.C.” turns up dozens of articles on why marching next Saturday is important. However, in terms of social activism, and specifically climate change, is protesting a true form of advocacy? Much of the climate march this year is focused on “fighting back,” specifically against the Trump administration. But is turning the environmental movement into a direct political one ethical? And what is the danger in turning a movement into a large-scale march?

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"Grand Ballroom" by sergio_leenan is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 (via Flickr)

President Donald Trump has spent three of the past four weekends in Florida at his Mar-a-Lago resort, conducting political business from interviewing cabinet nominees, hosting the Japanese prime minister, and formulating a response to a North Korean missile test at the club instead of in Washington. On Saturday morning, the president went so far as to dub the establishment “the Southern White House” in a tweet. While the Trump family’s extensive travel has already sparked concerns, Trump’s decision to hold numerous political meetings outside the actual White House is raising serious concerns about access and security.

"Buddha" by Francis Chung via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In the beginning weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, people of all faiths all over the world are asking the question, “How should our faith respond?” Buddhists are no exception to this. With important religious precepts centered on nonviolence and compassion, Buddhists are asking how they can apply their code of ethics to help those in need. Unique from other religions like Christianity and Islam, Buddhist texts and teachings make little reference to organized political or social activism. However, past historical figures like Mahatma Gandhi have used Buddhist precepts to dramatically change society. Gandhi used the profound principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence, to dismantle the British occupation of India. Once again, a turn to Buddhist principles is needed to encourage compassion in the unfolding months ahead.

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"US Secret Service" by Andre Gustavo Stumpf is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

Though it is still early in President Donald Trump’s term, the Secret Service seems to be getting more media attention than usual lately. The Secret Service always works diligently to protect the President’s family, but the Trumps have provided an extra challenge. For starters, President Trump has a large family – five children – and some of his adult children already have their own children who also require Secret Service protection. According to NBC, President Trump’s intention to regularly visit the First Lady and their son, Barron, at their New York City home also requires additional staffers to travel and secure both locations. Even before taking office, taxpayers were paying more than $2 million per day to ensure the safety of the Trump family, and that number is only expected to rise throughout his term in office. This could be a major problem, because, although protective needs are rising, the Secret Service budget is not.

"Putin/Trump make Russia great again" by Charles Stone via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

President-elect Donald Trump’s comments on Russian President Vladimir Putin have been a hot topic of discussion for months now. Trump has praised the Russian president’s leadership skills, noting that a renewed US-Russian cooperative relationship would be beneficial to both countries and to the world, specifically when it came to fighting ISIS. A Russian hack on the Democratic National Committee that resulted in thousands of leaked internal e-mails may have also influenced the election in Trump’s favor, leading to questions about the Putin-Trump relationship and concerns over election ballot hacking. Now that Trump stands to assume the presidency in a little less than two months, many Americans wonder what our future relationship with Russia will be. In order to understand what may come in the future, it is important to understand the beginnings of the Russian Federation – and how the United States may have had something to do with Russia turning from the West in the early 1990s.