The Best Approach to Plugging Leaks

Fortune August 7, 2017
By Leon E. Panetta

There is a great deal of attention in Washington these days over how best to stop leaks. In my over 50 years of public service, it is fair to say that every president I served under was angered and frustrated by leaks. When I became chief of staff to President Clinton, one of his first orders he gave me was “to stop those who are leaking to the press.”

Why are they so upset? Leaks can jeopardize the ability of a president to develop new policy, to plan defense and national security strategy, to protect classified information and sources, and to focus on his priorities. In a word, leaks of sensitive information can upset and undermine whatever mission the White House is trying to accomplish. That’s why presidents want to go to war on leakers. Their orders are usually the same: Find them, fire them, and prosecute them. The first place they turn for action is the Justice Department and the FBI.

The number of leaks and leak-related investigations have risen sharply since President Trump took office. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Friday an aggressive effort to investigate and prosecute leakers. While that is understandable, it may not be the most effective way to stop leaking.

The bitter reality is that in order to stop leakers, you have to understand why they do it. Generally, those who leak reflect some common behavioral traits: They are by nature usually angry and frustrated and want to get back at someone in authority; their boss is ignoring them; the president doesn’t care about their issue or has criticized them; they are part of a losing faction in the White House; they are desperate for attention; their first loyalty is to themselves and not to the president.

The bigger problem is that their behavior is usually the consequence of a poorly run White House and administration. It is no secret that for the last six months, the White House has been in turmoil: A number of staff and presidential assistants have been fired; instead of one chief of staff, there have been multiple power centers all competing for attention with the president; there has been little control of access to the Oval Office; the president has openly criticized staff, Congress, the media, intelligence agencies, and those involved in law enforcement; his tweets are haphazard and too often not based on a disciplined process of decision making; there has been no clear chain of command or designated responsibilities for many members of the staff; and as a result, many do not feel like they are part of the same team. Poor morale and poor communication breed chaos, and chaos breeds those who leak.

The key to stopping leaking in this White House may largely rest with the new chief of staff, General John Kelly. John was my military aide when I was secretary of defense. He is first and foremost a Marine who does not easily tolerate fools or chaos. He believes in accomplishing the mission and expects people to follow orders. Throughout his military career, and particularly in battle, he was greatly respected by his troops. He made clear to White House staff what he expects: loyalty to the country, to the president, and to their individual priorities—in that order.

If he can bring discipline, a strong chain of command, an orderly process for deciding policy, and can promote a sense of teamwork among the staff to accomplish the mission, he just might make them more loyal to the nation, their administration and their boss. And in the end, greater loyalty to the president is the best approach to plugging leaks.

Leon Panetta is a former secretary of defense and former CIA director.