(Warning this article may be perceived as a spoiler for those who haven’t yet seen the first season of “House of Cards”!)
Watching “House of Cards” gave me a perception of Washington, D.C. that I thought was fantastical. As I lay in bed this summer and binge-watched the powerful Congressman Frank Underwood share government secrets with the young, vivacious journalist Zoe Barnes, I was sure the show was completely based on fiction. Each time her phone rang and she was, thanks to Underwood’s big mouth, the first to print a story, I was astounded by Underwood’s audacity and Zoe’s acceptance. It only made the whole thing seem more outrageous when Zoe and Underwood started an illicit affair. As I watched, I was reminded of the Watergate scandal, when journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had a source nicknamed “Deep Throat” giving them all the secrets about the Nixon scandal to print. It was later confirmed that Deep Throat was FBI Associate Director Mark Felt. This relationship between the press and the government in D.C. seemed rare to me: an informant from inside the government giving the press information is a total breach of both trust and security clearance, and therefore I thought it was something only true in movies or in the past.
This past week, however, a huge Secret Service scandal started to unravel. The talk of the town was that one of Obama’s Secret Service agents leaked the President’s 2012 campaign stops to a Romney aide several days before the schedule was released to the public. The agent’s motivation is said to have been to impress the woman he was flirting with. Sound familiar? It’s like another version of the Zoe/Frank story. Granted, the White House has denied these allegations, but in my seminar class this week we discussed the possibility of such a scandal. Our guest speaker, a Special Forces captain in the U.S. Army, asked us to think about what the morale of the Secret Service staff must be like in order for one of them to feel it would be OK to make such a leak. We talked about incentives that could lead government agents to share information with the press. Low morale is a plausible scenario in the recent Secret Service scandal, especially considering the fact that Secret Service Director Julia Pierson recently resigned due to worries of poor performance. It’s also possible that Secret Service morale has been low for years, leading an agent to feel like there wouldn’t be many repercussions for revealing President Barack Obama’s schedule.
Regardless of the outcome in this particular scandal, all of these combined events have led me to reassess my opinion that security leaks don’t often happen in D.C. In fact, I would argue just the opposite. I’ve ditched my naïveté and come to realize the human nature and the inevitable fallibility in each and every government servant.
The other day, something small went missing in my office at the Department of Justice. People were complaining jokingly that perhaps it was stolen. I looked at them skeptically and said, “Yeah, right, this is the DOJ! There’s so much security to get into this building there’s no way anything could get stolen.” The head paralegal looked at me and said, “Don’t assume that everyone with a government badge is an honest person. Just because someone has a badge doesn’t make them honest.” Although we all had to go through rigorous background checks to even walk through the door, the truth is background checks can only go so far. For a Secret Service agent, an FBI administrator or even an intern, secret data is widely available and protected by the person’s word. Considering human fallibility, I am surprised by the trust the government has put in every single person they hire.
Living in D.C. has taught me that the government is made up of people just like you and me. It is a network of organizations manned by support staff who lead normal lives, have fallible traits and are not always dependable. If you think about it too hard, you might get scared thinking that our state secrets could be in the hands of unreliable or dishonest individuals. But our system has almost always worked. There will always be motivations for people to leak information to the press, an unexpected yet human quality that the Founding Fathers may not have considered when writing our constitution. Leaks will always happen because our government is not run by super-humans with flawless moral calculators. This is no reason for alarm, however, for as long as leaks exist, so too will punishment for the leakers.
Maura Levine can be reached at email@example.com.