Skip to content

The Anatomy of a Leaker

April 4, 2018

If I was Donald Trump, or Theresa May for that matter, I would be looking to ask one critical question about the character of the people I’m proposing to appoint to high positions in my government.

Will they, at some stage, turn out to be leakers? And if not leakers while they’re in office, will they spill the beans to damaging effect when they’re turfed out?

This thought occurs every time I look at a photo of a new appointment to Trump’s White House team, including the glowering, walrus-moustached functionary he’s just appointed as his National Security Advisor.

Before I started on this post, I decided to ask Google and Bing if they could point me towards any learned study that defines character traits shared by people who blab. Unfortunately, in their suggested answers to the queries “what makes people leakers” and “anatomy of a leaker”, both search engines think I’m asking about leaders, not leakers. A nice distinction.

So, in the absence of a personality test, and not having the assistance of Robert De Niro’s crazed former CIA operative in Meet the Fokkers, I’ve defined five types of people who would not gain admittance to my Circle of Trust.

The True Believer

The True Believer is attracted to the leader whose declared values and ideological outlook appears most closely to match their own. When they discover that all is not what it seems, that the object of their veneration turns out to be cynical, opportunistic and with the principles of a crocodile, the love turns to hatred. They feel betrayed, conned and manipulated.

The Malicious Courtier

Malicious Courtiers have prospered by doing down everyone who might threaten their fiefdoms. Their political instincts are acute. They love nothing more than a turf war, and they delight in briefing against their enemies and potential competitors. They often brief against other leakers.

The Game Player

The Game Player is highly intelligent, amoral and has an inbuilt sense of superiority over colleagues. They relish the chaos that a well-chosen leak can cause. They take the risk because it’s an assertion of their power. Psychopath? Quite possibly.

The Goldminer

The Goldminer might use all manner of motivations as a smoke screen, but their primary motivation is to make money. They take notes, write diaries, waiting for the moment when they can flounce out of the job in mock outrage and make a fortune through interviews and the inevitable book full of juicy revelations.

The Moralist

The Moralist is a variant on the true believer. The betrayal, in their mind, comes not from an individual, but from “the system” that they work to uphold, but that they realise – either gradually or in a moment of revelation – is morally bankrupt. For them, the end doesn’t justify the means. When they spill the beans, their action often comes at considerable personal risk.

The challenge for Trump, May and other leaders is how to predict the circumstances under which an appointee is liable to become a leaker. Unless, of course, leaking is part of the job description, as appeared to be the case when spin doctors working for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown became the best source of scuttlebutt about the neighbours in Downing Street.

Not being an occupational psychologist, I have no idea as to whether these definitions have any objective validity. I’m drawing them from my own life experience, which in turn is informed by a lifelong interest in history and politics.

It should be quite possible, though, to develop techniques, through assessment, background analysis and psychometric testing to identify who is most likely to spill the beans, and under what circumstances.

The trouble is that if you eliminate all potential leakers, you deny yourself the services of talented people. For example Jon Ronson, in his book The Psychopath Test, contends that psychopaths don’t necessarily end up as serial killers. Many are perfectly law-abiding, he claims, live amongst us undetected and have qualities that employers find valuable.

It must be unbelievably frustrating for Trump to know that his administration leaks like a sieve. You could argue that he has nobody to blame but himself. He presides over what looks more like a ruler’s court than a government. His own capricious behaviour, and his bizarre appointments – Scaramucci, Bannon, Gorka et al – must surely encourage others to leak through ambition, envy or as a matter of principle.

About the only people who can probably be relied upon not to leak are the generals, who have spent their careers dedicated to the sacred ethos of need to know. Among the rest, there will be some whose loyalty is to the president rather than the state, and others who regard themselves as public servants rather than Trump’s retainers. In either case, their sense of loyalty will be conditional, not absolute.

What should we make of famous leakers, from today’s crop, such as Christopher Wylie (Cambridge Analytica), Edward Snowden (NSA), and Julian Assange (Wikileaks) to Mark Felt (Watergate’s Deep Throat) and Daniel Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers)? And what are the motivations of the anonymous leakers who provided Michael Wolff with much of his material for Fire and Fury, his portrait of Trump’s White House?

Ego, wealth, power, envy, personal values or perhaps even lust?

Whether or not my definitions are close to the mark, I find that the psychology of leaking is a fascinating subject. In fact it’s about time someone with a couple of years to do the research came up with a book on the subject. Jon Ronson perhaps?

Back in the White House, I wonder if in his darker moments Donald Trump feels envious of past tyrants like Stalin and Saddam Hussein, who had their own gruesome ways of dealing with leakers. Not to mention his mate Vladimir Putin, who, his critics allege, thinks nothing of sending a dose of nerve agent, polonium or some other exotic poison to eliminate his loose-tongued compatriots.

I suppose the fact that the “leader of the free world” hasn’t yet graduated from venomous tweets and blunderbuss lawsuits to more extreme tactics is some cause for comfort. Leaking is a chequered profession, but who knows? Perhaps a leaker will end up bringing down the President. Plenty more to come on Donald Trump, I suspect.

From → Politics, UK, USA

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: