The Ethics of Leaking

Published: May 10th, 2007

By: Sandford BorinsThe RCMP has arrested a public servant from Environment Canada who is accused of leaking a draft of the Conservative government's Green Plan to the media. Today's question: What are the legal and moral justifications for public servants leaking confidential documents?Legally, leaking is unambiguously forbidden. Public servants are confidential advisers to government. While they may argue vigorously against a policy their political masters are contemplating, they must remain publicly silent. Similarly, even if they disagree with the chosen policy, they are obligated conscientiously to implement it.Morally, the issue creates a conflict between obligations as an employee and as a citizen. Public servants leak documents to discredit their political masters' policies when they believe these policies are not in the public interest.Historical examples include British public servants' leaks in the '30s to Winston Churchill, the outspoken opponent of the Chamberlain government's appeasement of Nazi Germany, and leaks by Deep Throat (identified three decades later as Mark Felt) about the Nixon administration's cover-up of the Watergate break-in. History has vindicated both appeasement's covert opponents and Deep Throat.Technology facilitates the circulation and reproduction of documents that can then be leaked. On the other hand, technology makes it increasingly possible to trace the keystroke trail to an individual. The safest way to send the confidential document remains the mail.My advice to public servants considering a leak: Do it only if you deeply believe the government's policies are counter to the public interest. And, if you leak but want to keep your job, cover your tracks.

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