Despite all of the publicity surrounding the actions of former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden, this will not be the last instance of government employees leaking secret information.
But what they all have in common is that none of the leaks were legally "espionage:” selling or giving secret information to the enemy with the intent of harming the United States.
Leaking, by contrast, is done with the intent of exposing government actions the leaker has reason to believe are illegal or corrupt.
Another common trait is that in almost every instance the government has claimed the leaks will cause irreparable damage to the United States.
Yet, after more than 230 years of leaks the “irreparable harm” seems never to have occurred.
During the Revolutionary War, Thomas Paine leaked secret information about French arms shipments sent to the Continental Army. The disclosures resulted in the first instance of a congressional leak investigation, but we still won the war.
In 1848, reporter John Nugent was the recipient of a leak detailing a secret treaty with Mexico. He was put under house arrest but never revealed his source.
On June 13, 1971, The New York Times began publishing excerpts of a leaked 7,000-page top secret document known as the Pentagon papers.
In one of the few leak cases to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices said the government had not proven how the documents would damage national security and that newspapers were within their rights to publish.
Again, the claims of damage to the country proved unfounded.
But something else we’ve learned from the Snowden disclosures is that the U.S. has been intercepting the electronic communications of other countries after we accused them of intercepting ours.
So, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe Secretary of State Henry Stimson wasn’t right when he shut down the U.S. Department of State's cryptanalytic office in 1929, saying, “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”