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Seeking Higher Ground: Lessons from ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’

By Nicolette Toussaint 

The president slammed her hand down on the table and thundered, “These leaks must stop. I’m going to find out who’s leaking, and there will be serious — very serious — repercussions!”

Sound like our nation’s current president? It’s not. There are two tip-offs here: first the pronoun “her”, second, the language is far too coherent to have come from Trump.

But this column is a parable about leaks — and why Trump and Sessions can’t plug them. At Trump’s behest, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced that that the F.B.I. had created a new counterintelligence unit to track down those who leak classified information and that the Justice Department “wouldn’t hesitate to bring criminal charges” against leakers.

I suspect their results will be similar to those Mickey Mouse got as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. For those too young to remember Fantasia, apprentice Mickey is weary of fetching water. He casts a spell on a magical, bucket-carrying broom, then splits it with an axe. Each splinter becomes a new broom. The multiplying brooms each grab water pails, and with dizzying speed, flood the place.

That’s pretty much what happened when the president of the private university I worked for threatened dire consequences for leaking. The president – I will call her Judy White – had hired me to promote the university to the media. My first day on the job, a long-time faculty member pulled me into a broom closet (ironic but true!) and asked if President White had shown me the university’s accreditation report.

She hadn’t.

Within hours, the report was in my hands.

Soon, other faculty and board members began making clandestine visits and inviting me off campus “for coffee”.

The report made clear that accreditation was hanging by a thread, the administration had somehow blown an $8 million endowment, its computerized enrollment system didn’t work and faculty on multiple campuses had taken official votes of “no confidence” in President White. None of this had been mentioned when I had been hired to serve as media counsel, a position somewhat analogous to the White House press secretary.

Back in 1946, New York Times political reporter James Reston observed that “governments are the only vessels that leak from the top.” That’s been true through multiple administrations. Truman, Bush and Clinton fought leaks. Via Watergate, Nixon found that hiring “plumbers” can backfire rather dramatically. The Obama administration used the Espionage Act to prosecute eight individuals for disclosing sensitive information, more than all previous presidencies combined. Not one president stopped leaks.

As Reagan once replied when asked how his administration could control leaks, “I’ve been told you don’t. Everybody who has been around here for a while tells me it is just the nature of the place.”

I haven’t served as a governmental press secretary, but my time in academia revealed why those dedicated to public service would risk both careers and censure to leak information; ethics.

In the university’s case, the underlying issue was safeguarding the nonprofit status of a school that idealistic faculty members had devoted many (underpaid) years serving. President White, pressed by finances, was attempting to sell the place to a for-profit corporation. Every inquiry she opened was leaked.

Faculty members and staff who divulged (and sabotaged) her quest did so out of a deep commitment to teaching and public service, ethical values that were being threatened. They held that converting publicly-held assets for private profit was unethical. They acted on values they held sacred. They considered themselves whistle-blowers. And they proved unstoppable, ultimately toppling the president.

Those in the Trump administration who are handing news to the press — recordings of back-room meetings on healthcare, hastily written (and badly spelled) executive orders, transcripts of presidential phone calls, accounts of White House infighting — are doing so largely out of ethics and professionalism. And that’s why they won’t stop.

As David Frum recently wrote in the Atlantic, “Senior national-security professionals regard Trump as something between (at best) a reckless incompetent doofus and (at worst) an outright Russian espionage asset.” Fear of a possible “Russian mole” in the White House is prompting intelligence leaks.

Similarly, at the EPA, staffers fear that climate-denial policies and Scott Pruitt’s leadership amount to fiddling while Rome burns. But it’s not Rome, it’s the planet and the future of our species. That’s why a draft report that concludes that Americans are already suffering the effects of global warming — including Sourcerer’s Apprentice-style flooding in coastal cities — was secretly advanced to the New York Times.

Ironically enough, for a guy who got famous yelling “You’re fired” on a TV show called “The Apprentice”, Trump, like Nixon before him, may find that his quest to plug leaks will land him in hot water.