The motives behind leaking secrets

The latest Wikileaks fiasco — hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables spilling out in the world’s media — raises an important question: Why do they do it? Why do leakers leak secrets, that is? 

In the case of those who do it for money, the motivation is perfectly clear: They do it for personal gain. This seems not to be the case with Wikileaks, where the source this time is said to have been a disgruntled private first class in Baghdad. But if not money, then what does move such people to take big risks and potentially do great harm? 

During years of handling media relations at the national and international levels for several church groups, I drew some conclusions on that. A non-exhaustive list of motives for leaking would include at least the following:

Start with altruism: to head off a mistake (or what the leaker considers a mistake) or correct an abuse. Often in combination with other factors, this is what frequently drives whistle-blowers. Not uncommonly, the aim is to rally support for a course of action that seems to be losing out in some internal deliberative process. 

Altruism clearly is at risk of shading off into something much less attractive. One writer speaks of “adolescent self-righteousness,” said to be operative in the Wikileaks case. 

Ideological motives: to tilt the playing field in favor of your point of view, to embarrass and punish opponents in debate, to propagandize by giving only one side in an argument in hopes of influencing public opinion. 

This was the motive in 1967 behind the leaking of documents from the papal birth control commission. The goal was to manipulate opinion in such a way as to discourage Pope Paul VI from doing what he did a year later anyway: reaffirm the Church’s teaching against contraception. 

Odds and ends: to accomplish one or more of a gaggle of mean-spirited private purposes — getting revenge, burnishing your own reputation, puffing up your sense of self-importance as a mover and shaker, currying favor with a journalist or journalists in hopes of getting favorable coverage for oneself now or later, or just having some malicious fun at somebody else’s expense. The triviality of the motives in such instances by no means eliminates or even diminishes the quantity of harm that the leaking can do. 

These motives and others not listed here can and frequently do combine in particular acts of leaking. Altruism and self-seeking, for example, are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and a leaker may wish to serve some high public purpose while simultaneously undercutting a hated rival. 

It’s important to grasp, too, that the phenomenon of leaking in itself constitutes an implicit argument against abusing secrecy by keeping things confidential that ought to be publicly known. In such cases, the secrecy is an incitement to leaking, and the leaking may actually be a way of promoting the common good. Items like that may be part of the Wiki-leaks cache, though probably not enough of them to justify leaking this whole body of confidential documents. 

As for the rantings of Web fanatics defending a totally open and unfettered ethos in their medium of choice — ranting is ranting, even when it’s done on behalf of some genuinely good cause like freedom of expression, and most certainly when done, as here, in the service of mere anarchy. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.