The Atlantic

The 'Leak' in the Age of Alternative Facts

From Ben Franklin to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to H.R. McMaster, a brief history of a weaponized word
Source: IanRedding / Shutterstock

“I think national security is put at risk by this leak and leaks like this.”

That was H.R. McMaster, talking to reporters on Tuesday morning. President Trump’s national security advisor was not referring, in this case, to the president’s reported leak of classified intelligence to Russian officials, during a meeting in the White House—a leak that The Washington Post, corroborated by several other news outlets, first revealed on Monday evening. McMaster was instead talking in more multi-dimensional terms, about the leaking of the leaks—about the actions of the anonymous sources who first informed the Post about the Oval Office intelligence breach.

You’d be forgiven, however, for confusion on that front. “Leak” is, as accusations go, itself fairly fluid. It shape-shifts. While it may call to mind the most straightforward of structural problems—trickles that threaten to become floods, ships that threaten to be sunk by that unlikeliest of torpedoes—the “leak” varies in its implications. Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Mark Felt, WikiLeaks, “individuals with knowledge of the situation” … to some they are villains. To others they

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