Tatianna Harris
Apr 16, 2024

Insider Alert: Unveiling Public Sector Culprits Behind History's Most Notorious Leaks

Explore the complex motives, the aftermath, and the ongoing debates about security, privacy, and the thin line between whistleblowing and betrayal in these infamous leaks. From classified documents to tax secrets, we trace the footsteps of those who crossed the line and shook the foundations of the public sector.

It begins with a secret…

It all starts in the shadowy corridors of the public sector where classified information meets the public eye. These stories of the most infamous insider threats and leaks stoked the flames of security and privacy, and raised the question where the line should be drawn for individuals, businesses, and government entities. The Pentagon Papers and Snowden's revelations brought critical areas to light for the public. But the complex motives, the aftermath, and the ongoing debates about security, privacy, and the thin line between whistleblowing and betrayal continue to be discussed as new incidents creep up.

 … and ends in prosecution. 

History’s most notorious leaks, whether done with malice or good intentions, have rocked the United States’ public opinion of the federal government and enterprises operating within government oversight. Starting at number ten on the top ten leaks in the public sector, from least to most severe, is the tax records incident with former President, Donald Trump.

10. Tax Returns of Trump and The Ultra Wealthy

An incident seen as the largest IRS leak in the history of the United States unfolded in 2019 and 2020 that would challenge the very essence of American democracy. An IRS contractor stole and leaked tax records denoting the then-President, Donald Trump, and thousands of other wealthy people in the United States. It's a story of secrecy, revelations, and the complexity of the fine line between morality and legality. 

What happened: At the heart of the issue is Charles Edward Littlejohn, a former IRS contractor, who was driven by a conviction of serving the public's right to know, and made a decision that would mark the pages of history as the architect of the largest IRS leak ever witnessed in the United States.

In 2020 The New York Times, armed with documents provided by Littlejohn, published a series of exposés that laid out the tax returns of then-President Donald Trump. The revelations were staggering: for 10 out of the previous 15 years, Trump had paid no income taxes, largely citing reported business losses as the reason. But Trump was not alone in the act. Littlejohn had cast a wider net, sending The New York Times and ProPublica copies of tax records belonging to thousands of the nation's wealthiest, revealing the myriad of ways that America's financial elite navigate the tax code.

Now the floodgate was open with information challenging the opaque veils of privacy and security that had shielded the financial dealings of the powerful for so long. Littlejohn, operating under a belief that he was acting in the best interests of his country, had ignited a debate around tax laws, the ethics of tax avoidance, and the fiscal responsibilities of those in the highest financial brackets of society, including those in public office. The public discourse that ensued was not just about numbers on a page but about the very principles of fairness, transparency, and the role of wealth in American democracy.

The results: The impact rippled far beyond the news and into the heart of public policy and perception. Here was concrete evidence of the tax avoidance practices employed by the ultra-wealthy, sparking widespread calls for reform and greater transparency in the financial obligations of public officials and the rich. Yet, amid the outcry and scandal, there lay deeper questions about privacy, the sanctity of confidential information, and the ethical boundaries of bringing such information to light.

9. Leaked Draft Majority Supreme Court Opinion - The Dobbs Opinion (overturning Roe v. Wade)

According to the court of public opinion, the leaked draft of the Supreme Court opinion was a critical blow to the democratic system and ultimately led to diminished trust in the Supreme court. With over 90 people having access to the document at one point in time, the search for the leaker quickly grew complicated, resulting in inconclusive answers.

What Happened: In May 2022, Politico published a draft majority opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, indicating the Court was set to overturn Roe v. Wade, which had legalized abortion nationwide in 1973.

The leak was unprecedented in the Court's modern history, as draft opinions are confidential and closely held. The exact method of the leak remains unclear, but it exposed significant internal deliberations of the Court. The Supreme Court, in an acknowledgment of the gravity of the inside breach, confirmed the authenticity of the draft and initiated a search for the source of the leak. Yet, as the investigation unfolded, the identity of the leaker remained shrouded in mystery, a shadowy figure eluding the most diligent efforts. This exposure brought a swift reckoning with the reality of its security and the trust vested in it by the American people.

The results: The leak provoked a massive public and political reaction, demonstrations, and debates over the Court's legitimacy and security protocols. It also intensified discussions on abortion rights in the United States. Michael Chertoff, the former Homeland Security Secretary, reflected on the incident, telling Politico that, amidst the turmoil, valuable lessons were learned that could forge a path to safeguarding against future breaches. Though the culprit is yet to be identified, the level of scrutiny and security has increased. As the dust settles, the nation watches and waits with the breach forcing citizens to confront the fundamental questions about privacy, trust, and the balance of power. Only time will tell.

8. Money and Power in Offshore Accounts: Revelations from The Panama Papers

In April 2016, an unprecedented leak of more than 11.5 million files from the database of the world’s fourth-largest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca, was released. The source of the leak is still unknown to this day, for fear of death by some of the world’s wealthiest people in power. Here’s why it was one of the biggest leaks at that time and shook the U.S. Government.

What happened: The Panama Papers revealed detailed information about more than 214,000 offshore companies listed by the corporate service provider in Panama, Mossack Fonseca. The documents, some dating back to the 1970’s, were shared by an anonymous source to a German newspaper and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), afterwhich a coordinated a global investigation involving over 100 media organizations took action. This notorious leak exposed the myriad of ways that the rich can and did exploit secretive offshore tax regimes; implicating some of the world’s most notorious global leaders, celebrities, wealthy individuals, and even criminals, in their use of offshore accounts for tax evasion, fraud, and evading international sanctions.

The results: Releasing the Panama Papers led to significant repercussions globally, from resignations of known leaders and other public figures, to tax investigations across the world, and calls for reforms aimed at improving transparency in the global financial system. Soon after the leak, ​​the Prime Minister of Iceland, Ukraine, and Pakistan all abdicated their positions, because the information not only highlighted the scale of financial misdealings but also raised serious questions about the integrity of the legal and financial systems that enabled the secretive offshore dealings. Public awareness and understanding of financial secrecy among the wealthy, prompted calls for stringent regulations and transparency in financial transactions worldwide especially when dealing with government officials and others in positions of power. 

7. The 2022–2023 Pentagon Document Leaks

In January 2022, Jack Teixeira, a member of the U.S Air National Guard (USANG) in Massachusetts, abused his top secret security clearance by sharing images of classified national defense information to a group of enthusiasts on a private Discord server named "Thug Shaker Central".

What happened: In 2022, Teixeira began leaking classified military information – the detailed classified information he published to a public internet forum included assessments detailing the capabilities and vulnerabilities of the U.S. military, potentially endangering U.S. troops and compromising national security.

The real issue is that Teixeira used his position as an analyst with (unnecessary) access to top secret sensitive and classified information to exfiltrate and share publicly. According to a press release by the Office of Public Affairs, “Teixeira accessed, transcribed, and transmitted written information as well as posted images of the classified secret and top secret documents.

The results: After the leaked private information was discovered, an investigation was launched that led to Teixeira's April 2023 arrest. The incident made waves, prompting a review of how classified information is handled and who is permitted access to it, particularly in the National Guard and Reserve units. With vulnerabilities in the handling of classified information within the military, questions about the efficacy of the security clearance process were raised leading to increased scrutiny of how sensitive information is shared and stored, and the need for better oversight and training for individuals with access to classified materials. It’s a perpetual dance between sharing information for unity and securing it for safety. While there is a balance for both sides, insider risk is always present. 

6. WikiLeaks - The Whistleblower Formerly Known as Bradley Manning

WikiLeaks, founded by Julian Assange, has been involved in several high-profile leaks of classified and sensitive information. Among its legion of controversial releases were the Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning leaks, which included classified documents related to U.S. military operations and diplomatic cables, coined as cablegate. Other releases include the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs and files concerning Guantanamo Bay prison detainees. 

What happened: WikiLeaks is responsible for publishing a vast amount of classified, confidential, and leaked documents. Manning, an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, had access to classified information and downloaded over 750,000 sensitive documents relating to the Iraq War. Feeling the burden of these grim realities, Manning chose to expose the underbelly of U.S. military operations and the stark realities of diplomatic maneuverings through WikiLeaks.

To transport confidential information onto a personal device, Manning sneakily transferred the stolen data onto a CD disguised with the name Lady Gaga. Throughout early 2010, WikiLeaks published thousands of the stolen documents and files depicting U.S. military actions that led to civilian casualties - shedding light on atrocities committed by American armed forces, painting a far grimmer picture of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and embarrassing the United States’ diplomatic establishment.

The results: Manning was arrested in May 2010, sentenced to 35 years in prison, but was later released in 2017 after a commuted sentence by the then President Barack Obama. WikiLeaks’ releases had profound impacts on global politics, diplomacy, and perceptions of transparency and privacy. The releases have led to public outcries, policy reforms, and debates on the ethics of whistleblowing versus the need for secrecy in national security. The organization and its affiliates have faced legal actions, and discussions about the balance between freedom of information and security continue to evolve.

5. Pentagon Papers - Whistleblowing and the War for Public Trust 

The Pentagon Papers, officially called Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, was a top-secret Department of Defense study of U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. In short, U.S. administrations had misled the American public about the scale of the Vietnam war and the United States’ involvement.

What happened: In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst, and his colleague Anthony Russo leaked the documents to the New York Times (NYT) and the Washington Post. Ellsberg photocopied the report and provided it to Neil Sheehan, a reporter for the New York Times, who published a series of articles based on the documents. But the plot thickens – when the NYT began publishing articles, the Department of Justice (DOJ) put out a temporary restraining order against the newspaper, instigating a legal battle in which the Supreme Court ultimately allowed the NYT to continue. 

The results: The leak of the Pentagon Papers had a significant impact on public opinion about the Vietnam War, revealing that successive U.S. administrations had misled the public about the war's scale and prospects of success. It contributed to the growing anti-war movement and increased distrust in government; leading to widespread debate over the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, the truthfulness of government officials, and the role of the press in holding the government accountable. 

The landmark case of the NYT vs. the DOJ, established a legal precedent for the press's right to publish classified information in the public interest in accordance with the First Amendment. Though Ellsberg was charged with theft, conspiracy, and violations of the Espionage Act, his case ended in a mistrial due to evidence of government-ordered wiretapping. The entire incident exposed not only the gap between government actions and public statements but also eroded public trust and contributed to the growing demand for transparency and accountability. 

4. NSA Leaks from a Whistleblower: Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden, a name that would soon echo around the globe, became synonymous with one of the most significant insider leaks in U.S. history after unveiling a hidden world of global surveillance and exposing how vast those networks operated from deep within government agencies. Quietly watching both allies and adversaries, Snowden pulled back the curtain on the government program leading people to questions: What are the ethical responsibilities of the government? Being both condemned as traitorous and praised for promoting transparency and privacy rights, here’s the full story.

What Happened: In 2013, Edward Snowden, a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), disclosed classified information to journalists. Documents revealed extensive global surveillance programs operated by the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments. Snowden copied and leaked thousands of NSA documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill, which were then published by The Guardian, The Washington Post, and other media outlets, revealing the breadth of surveillance activities on both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens. But, what motivated this smart, security cleared individual to blow the NSA’s secrets? 

In a 2013 exposé with The Guardian, Snowden commented: "I’m willing to sacrifice all of that [the comforts of my life] because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

The results: The leaks sparked a global debate on privacy rights, government surveillance, and the balance between national security and civil liberties. It led to calls for reforms in surveillance laws and practices, including changes to the USA PATRIOT Act and the implementation of the USA Freedom Act. Fleeing the anticipated grip of U.S. prosecution, Snowden found temporary asylum in Russia, a polarizing move. To some, Snowden is to this day seen as a traitor, a rogue pawn that compromised national security at a point of heightened global tensions. To others, he is a champion of civil liberties, standing up to tyrannical business and government collusive behaviors, and is a beacon of transparency in a society of constant surveillance. 

3. Code Name: Vault 7 - CIA Hacking Tools Leaked

A bombshell dropped when Wikileaks published Vault 7, cracking open the treasure trove of the CIA's cyber arsenal and flinging the contents into the public eye. This wasn't just a few scattered documents; it was a comprehensive exposé on the tools and tactics the CIA used to peer into the lives of not just adversaries but everyday citizens worldwide. 

What happened: In March 2017, WikiLeaks began releasing a series of documents known as "Vault 7." These documents contained detailed information about the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) cyber tools and methods for conducting electronic surveillance and cyber warfare. The Vault 7 release is considered one of the largest insider leaks of classified CIA documents in history.

The leaks exposed a wide range of sophisticated cyber tools, including malware, viruses, trojans, and zero-day exploits used by the CIA to compromise smartphones, smart TVs, web browsers, and operating systems of both consumer products and commercial systems. One notable tool, "Weeping Angel," was described as capable of turning smart TVs into covert listening devices.

The results: It’s a game of modern espionage that raises serious questions about privacy, the scope of government surveillance, and the security of consumer electronics. Confronting the reality of Vault 7 forced a dialogue on the trade-offs between security and privacy while sparking a specific debate on the ethics and risks of hoarding vulnerabilities rather than disclosing them. If companies and manufacturers are not made aware of specific necessary patches, it could leave the public at risk to threat actor exploits. 

2. Sparking Debate: Democratic National Committee (DNC) Emails Leaked

In the midst of a U.S. Presidential Election campaign, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) found itself at the heart of a controversy that would alter the trajectory of the election. When a trove of emails and documents was made public on WikiLeaks, the internal workings of the DNC came to light revealing discussions that suggested a favoring of a certain candidate in the Democratic primaries, exposing not just bias but the gritty underbelly of political maneuvering that people suspect but hope is not true.

What happened: In 2016, a collection of emails and documents from the DNC were leaked during the 2016 United States Presidential Election Campaign, revealing communications within the committee suggesting bias against Bernie Sanders in favor of Hillary Clinton in the primaries. Additional emails later exposed various political strategies, personal opinions of party officials, and correspondences that led to significant embarrassment for the DNC and its members. Not surprisingly, this sparked controversy and gave other political members ample ammunition during presidential debates.

The results: The DNC email leaks had a profound and lasting impact on the 2016 U.S. presidential election and beyond. Contributing to the resignation of several DNC officials, including its chairperson, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the leaks also fueled debates over the integrity of the electoral process, the security of political organizations' communications, and the role of state-sponsored hacking. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian hackers were behind the breach with the intent to influence the election outcome. Not only was there immediate impact on the American political system but this incident revealed the vulnerabilities and challenges in safeguarding the democratic process and America’s electoral infrastructure, and demonstrated the long term implications of losing public confidence and trust.

1. The Walker Spy Ring: 18 Years of Soviet espionage that altered the balance of power with Russia

Espionage during the Cold War had a profound impact on U.S. national security, with lasting damage. The most impactful espionage was by the Walker spy ring. In 1990, when the full extent of their damage was better understood, the NY Times stated that the information leaked significantly altered the balance of power between Russia and the United States. 

What happened: The Walker spy ring was a group of spies, primarily family members, led by the spy master John Anthony Walker, Jr., a Chief Warrant Officer and communications specialist in the U.S. Navy. John Walker, a high school dropout and criminal, took the option to join the Navy in 1955 in order to avoid jail time after he was caught in a high speed chase by law enforcement. By 1967, he was promoted to warrant officer and ran the communications center for the entire submarine force. Later that year, as he faced a huge debt from a failed bar he opened, he walked into the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. and sold a radio cipher card for several thousand dollars to a KGB official. He also negotiated a weekly salary of $500. He was now hooked.

He later recruited several accomplices, including his brother, his son, and Navy friend Jerry Whitworth, all of whom had access to sensitive information. To convince Jerry, he lied to him saying the information was instead being shared with Israel, an ally of the USA. Even after retiring from the Navy, Walker used his spy network to continue feeding information to the Soviet Union, resulting in tremendous damage to national security.

The results: The information provided by Walker and his ring is believed to have drastically compromised U.S. national security, altering the balance of power during the Cold War and even prolonging unsettled communications. Through these leaks, among many other secrets, the Russians learned how the USA was able to track Soviet submarines through passive sonar with great precision. Upon learning this information, the Russians built much quieter submarines. This limited the ability of the USA to track them and dramatically decreased the ability of the USA to defend itself from nuclear attack.

The U.S. military had to overhaul its cryptographic systems at great expense. Walker was arrested in 1985, and his capture led to reforms in security and counterintelligence practices within the U.S. military and government agencies, including how investigative interviews were conducted. This is also a prime example of why federal clearance evaluations look into any personal debts - the U.S. Government does look kindly on personal manipulation, blackmail, or bribery.  

What now?

These monumental insider leaks have reshaped trust and transparency in society, and provided a path forward learning from historical significance and the enduring impact of lost trust from inside saboteurs and the public. Insider threats will never disappear, but the impact can be diminished with proactive measures. In a world where information is both currency and weapon, these incidents serve as cautionary opportunities about the power of information, the responsibility of governance, and the unending quest for a balance that honors both security and transparency for public interest and information sharing. 

The conversation these leaks have sparked is far from over; it evolves with every new headline as a constant reminder that at the heart of information sharing is a profound dialogue about trust, accountability, and in these specific cases the essence of integrity. 

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