As a means of spreading mistrust, confusion and distraction within the Trump administration, last week's New York Times Op-ed by "Anonymous" was a master stroke. Vladimir Putin himself could hardly have done better. Suspicion is rife, the administration has been left to rummage through its own ranks for this incognito writer who claims and lauds subversion of the president by his own high-level staff. Relays of senior officials have been left to deny authorship, without being able to prove the truth of their denials unless the real author is discovered.
As Ambassador Nikki Haley accurately summed it up in a Sept. 7 Op-ed in the Washington Post, this anonymous writer, described by the Times as "a senior official," has sowed mistrust among thousands of government workers, who had nothing to do with this article. Anonymous has encouraged America's adversaries to, as Haley puts it, "promote their hostile claims about the stability of our government," and unfairly cast doubt on the president himself "in a way that cannot be directly refuted because the anonymous acccuser's credibility and knowledge cannot be judged."
The Times tells us this Op-ed escapade required anonymity because the author, if identified, would be in jeopardy of losing a federal job. That alone suggests the Times is willing to vouch for an author with an odd set of priorities. But surely there's more to it. The titillating use of "Anonymous" has brought a gush of extraordinary attention to the Times, and one might wonder if there will be special credit inhouse for anyone on its editorial staff who had a hand in ferrying the Op-ed from the anonymous writer — this erstwhile conservative champion of "free minds, free markets and free people" — to the public page. While the contents of the Op-ed brought nothing new to the rumor mills or furor of America's political debate, the tease of anonymity, combined with the label of "senior official," has become clickbait galore. In effect, the platform of a government job has been leveraged here to serve the personal agenda of an individual within the administration. When the medium for this sort of behavior is money, it's called corruption.
So, we now have the most titillating guessing game of the political season. News outlets have been producing lists of likely suspects, reporting on the denials and discoursing on the pros and cons of anonymous authorship. The Times itself has been expanding on its own Op-ed from every conceivable angle (news, podcast, letters) — except, it would appear, actually uncovering in its news pages the identity of the anonymous "senior official" whose notion of a "steady state" is to assure American voters that there are powerful staffers working in the shadows to thwart, as they personally see fit, the agenda of the democratically elected president.
Generous though it was for the New York Times to give such extravagant play to an author who claims from behind a "senior official" mask to be defending conservative causes, it would have been a more plausible service to the country to publish this Op-ed under the author's name. One of the great benefits of America's free society, including its free markets, is that losing a senior government job is hardly a death sentence. The author could find work someplace else, engage in honest debate, remove the shadow of suspicion from officials who had nothing to do with this Op-ed (and quite possibly rake in six-figure financial accolades on GoFundMe).
If the New York Times wishes to publish any more Op-eds by anonymous government officials, then in the genuine interest of defending free minds, free markets and free people, I'd suggest there's a far better use to be made of "Anonymous" — and the knock-on disruptive effects of this brand of publishing. Don't offer anonymity to Americans who already enjoy the vast benefits of free speech, democracy and protection of law. Look outside America, to unfree countries where senior officials serve in governments that are not endowed with the legitimacy of genuine elections; governments that would do far worse than merely fire an official for expressing discontent, or celebrating efforts at subversion.
There are predatory tyrannies, with which America is right now contending, in which the penalty for dissent — whether within or outside the government — is not simply losing an upscale job, but potentially being sent to prison, beaten, tortured, assassinated or executed. North Korea, Iran, Russia and China come to mind. These are places where there is no opportunity for free-wheeling debate. These are places where, for those, anywhere, who cherish freedom, there might well be benefits to sowing mistrust among government officials, and airing, in a major western newspaper — under safety of anonymity — voices of high-level discontent or insider accounts of efforts from within to undermine the agenda at the top.
The Times, in its coverage of its own Op-ed, notes that it has previously published a number of Op-eds in which the authors, for reasons of safety, were either permitted anonymity, or allowed to use a pen name. The examples include asylum seekers, and a writer from Syria. But these are cases rather different from last week's "Anonymous." These have been private individuals, writing in that capacity, not officials claiming to offer a tour from within the seat of power.
If the aim at the Times is really the defense of freedom and the interests of American democracy, then how about seeking out and publishing — under "Anonymous" — Op-eds from officials in places such as North Korea? Or Iran? Where are the Op-eds from anonymous senior officials within the ranks of President Xi's militarizing dictatorship in Beijing? Or Kremlin servants who harbor doubts about the de facto presidency-for-life of Putin?
Such articles would be hard to obtain. Protecting any such authors would be difficult, even under the byline of "Anonymous." But the Times clearly has its methods and conduits for providing anonymity while maximizing exposure. Instead of using such resources to undermine the administration of a freely elected U.S. president, how about applying them to unearth Op-ed contributors within hostile governments that could use some disruption and undermining? Why not leave Kim Jong Un rummaging through his ranks for "Anonymous"? How about it?