United States President Donald Trump has branded former FBI director James Comey a “leaker”.
However, closer scrutiny suggests the ex-top cop was in fact a “whistleblower”.
There is an important difference between the two.
Leaking is the unauthorised disclosure of information, whether it’s classified or not, by government employees to news outlets. Whistleblowing is the exposing of important information that is of public interest, but is being hidden from the people by politicians or bureaucrats.
As one political commentator, Dana Gold, writing in Slate, puts it: “Leaks are like junk food … it’s fun to read and often newsworthy but its core purpose is for political ends – to embarrass a political rival or influence a policy agenda – or to curry favour with a journalist by offering an entertaining tidbit that will draw readers.”
She points out that whistleblowing, however, stresses disclosures of classified information that reveal serious breaches of public trust – including evidence of violations of laws, rules or regulations, gross waste of public funds, gross mismanagement and abuse of authority.
Timothy Naftali, former director of the Nixon Library, who teaches history and public policy at NYU, writes that Comey is the first FBI director in history to admit to being a whistleblower.
“At a key moment in the over two hours of testimony, Comey volunteered that through a friend at Columbia Law School, he decided to leak the contents of his contacts with President Trump to the press (after the President lied about the circumstances surrounding Comey’s firing),” he writes at the CNN website.
Lessons for Thailand from the Trump-Comey tussle aren’t necessarily about the difference between “leaking” and “whistleblowing” (the latter is actually quite rare here). The most significant take-away from this episode is the question how does a professional bureaucrat working in an independent agency handle undue influence or pressure from the top political leader?
What happens if the country’s top politician, who has the authority to hire and fire, tells a senior official investigating a major figure in a corruption case: “I hope you can you see your way clear to letting this go … he is a good guy … I hope you can let this go.”
How is a good, honest government official in Thailand supposed to react if the big boss tells him or her: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty” after suggesting that an investigation related to a person very close to him should be “let go”?
I can imagine the conversation would go something like this:
Boss: Do you want to stay in your job?
Official: Yes, sir.
Boss: Lots of people want your job, you know? Given the abuse you had to take over the previous year, I would understand if you want to walk away.
Official: I am fine, sir. I can put up with the pressure.
Boss: Does that mean you wouldn’t mind dropping your investigation into the person I consider a good guy?
Official: Yes, he is a good guy, sir.
Boss: But I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.
Official: You will always get honesty from me, sir.
Boss: But what’s the difference between loyalty and honesty?
Official: Loyalty means I will do what you want me to do. Honesty means I would tell you I can’t always do what you want me to do, sir.
Boss: Are you going to write a memo of this conversation?
Official: I am not a leaker, sir.
Boss: But are you going to be a whistleblower?
Official: It depends on whether you provide me with material that is worth blowing the whistle over, sir.
Boss: The investigation your agency is working on is a cloud that’s impairing my ability to act on behalf of the country. What can you do to lift the cloud? I expect loyalty from you. I need loyalty.
Official: I can always offer you honesty, sir.
Boss: That’s what I want, honest loyalty.
Official: What does that mean, sir?
Boss: Honestly, I think you will understand what that means if you are loyal to me.
Official: I can be loyal, but not honest. If I am really honest, you may not think I am loyal, sir.
Boss: What if I said that if you are more honest than loyal, you are fired!
Official: Sir, I would rather be loyal than honest then, sir.
Boss: That’s why I said honest loyalty, not loyal honesty!