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The Inspired Leak
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
One of the most noteworthy dustups about the publication of forbidden information came in 1932, when a man named Herbert Yardley wrote a book on the way the United States had learned how to uncover Japanese military secrets. Yardley knew what he was talking about—he had been head of the intelligence division known as the Black Chamber during and after the First World War, and after Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson closed this project in 1929 with the remark that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” Yardley had written an extremely indiscreet book about what had been done, naming nineteen nations whose secret codes the Black Chamber people had solved. This was unfortunate, because a number of these nations promptly changed their codes, and when Yardley did his book on the Japanese, various people in the government felt that he ought to be stopped. At one time United States marshals seized the manuscript of his book on the ground that it violated a statute relating to the sanctity of secret documents, but nothing came of this and early in the New Deal administration a new law was devised providing fines and imprisonment for any government employee who published or connived at the publication of material prepared in a diplomatic code to which he, as a government worker, had had access.
The Senate was mildly puzzled, apparently inclined to wonder why the government needed to “create a new crime.” Senator Tom Connolly of Texas, guiding the bill for the administration, had a quick reply: “All the bill would do is simply to make it a criminal offense for a scoundrel to betray his confidential relationship with the Government.” In addition, it provided that anyone else who conspired with a government agent to use confidential material “for private gain or private profit ought to be punished.” That seemed reasonable—after all, nobody can object to punishing scoundrels—and in the end the bill was passed, going on the statute books as Section 95 2 of Title 18, United States Code. But Senator Hiram Johnson looked toward the future and expressed a certain worry. This bill, he said, would not touch the particular offense it was aimed at (Yardley’s) but would remain on the statute books … “a criminal law with harsh penalties, until—far in the future, when its original purpose will have been forgotten—it will be used for another purpose for which it was never intended and may do gross wrong.”
Both senators, of course, were right, as far as men can be right in a politically uncertain world, and the two points of view on leakage of government information are still valid. There are government files, dossiers, memoranda, and so on that ought to remain hidden; some secrets are like phosphorus in that they burst into flame when exposed to the air. So governments are forever trying to devise laws that will protect the sanctity of such matters.
… and yet; pass such a law today and it will fly up and hit you in the face a generation later, when some situation you could not possibly have foreseen (l’affaire Watergate may be a case in point) generates the explosive force that will drive it out into the open. Sometimes the national welfare demands the publication of knowledge that was supposedly suppressed for the nation’s good.
And this perhaps is another way of saying that over the long haul too much knowledge is better than too little. Democracy’s road is always bumpy but it is the only road we have, and if it bruises us at times we at least keep moving. The leaks that cause these bumps now and then seem unendurable, but now and then they are also utterly essential.