clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

MormonLeaks in the Age of Transparency

SALT LAKE CITY — The tide of pirated information is rising.

The White House has more leaks than a water slide. The president, however, is not swimming alone. Forbidden disclosures are everywhere. On Wednesday, a tech leak revealed new features of the coming iPhone 8. Thursday provided an unauthorized sneak peek of a new team's logo. A week ago, a newspaper released the emergency call made when singer George Michael died.

Want to leak something yourself? There's an app for that. There also are plenty of other high-tech tools for maintaining anonymity on the road to bootlegging in the Age of Transparency.

Transparency is the declared Siren song of MormonLeaks founder Ryan McKnight, whose team has built a secure website as a platform for those who want to leak documents or videos anonymously from inside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The former Mormon's stated mission has raised robust questions among ethicists, journalists, scholars and others, who say there are good leaks and bad leaks. If McKnight believes transparency is a top, or the only, priority, should he be more transparent? Do his leaks serve the higher public interest? Or is it a kind of 21st-century Peeping Tom-foolery, digital voyeurism, if you will, to traffic in an apostle's personal financial documents, a decades-old excommunication letter, dated routine memos and private organizational videos?

There are other questions. Is it legal, or ethical, for White House or church sources to leak confidential information? Should news outlets or leaks websites be egging them on, as the New York Times now does? Is McKnight serving a legitimate journalistic function, as he claims?

And finally, what is the responsibility of a news consumer today?

"To me," said Jane Kirtley, director of the University of Minnesota's Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, "in the era of leaks, consumers of news actually have a lot of responsibility in terms of sorting out the quality of the publisher in the first instance and then how authentic whatever it is that is put out might be and whether it is a matter of public interest — not interesting to the public but a matter of the public interest."

One independent scholar asked an additional question.

Is transparency the enemy of the sacred?

MormonLeaks emerge

In October, in the thick of the final day of the LDS Church's global general conference, McKnight oversaw the unauthorized release of 15 videos that showed LDS leaders receiving briefings in private meetings between 2007 and 2012.

McKnight again made news in January when he opened his MormonLeaks online portal by leaking what appeared to be private financial records of President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the church's First Presidency. The allowance stubs purported to show how much President Eyring received from the church over 14 weeks in 1999 and 2000, when he was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. The stubs, which included handwritten notations about his tithing, indicated the church provided him with $90,000 in 2000 for living expenses, including housing.

A second leaked document, a letter from the faith's Presiding Bishopric to another church leader in January 2014, appeared to be a memo stating that "the General Authority base living allowance has been increased from $116,400 to $120,000."

The church will not confirm the authenticity of any "leaked" document.

The immediate questions were obvious. Were the documents authentic? If so, who obtained them, how, and why did that person give them to McKnight? Was McKnight encouraging theft? Did he have any ethical issues with what he was doing?

His answers have left many wanting. He didn't think publishing President Eyring's private records encouraged others to steal records from the church and its leaders.

"I don't know how the person got them, and I don't care," he said. "That doesn't play into the decision. ... If they have broken a non-disclosure agreement or have broken the law to obtain the information to send to us, that is their problem, not mine. If we receive something we think should be part of the public record, we will publish it."

That attitude surprised some, but not Rosalynde Welch, an independent Mormon scholar in St. Louis, Missouri.

"The Internet rewards this asymmetrical distribution of power, where one person can suddenly get a lot of power over a large institution in a way that never would have been possible before the Internet made that a thing. Now we have this emerging narrative of the swashbuckling online warrior for justice who's going to speak truth to power and take down these big institutions in the name of transparency. It looks to me as though they have adopted that narrative along the lines of Wikileaks. They obviously have self-consciously styled themselves that way.

"They're looking around for a big get, something that will embarrass the Brethren and embarrass the church. My impression is that so far, they haven't struck gold in terms of finding something that is a smoking gun or that raises large ethical questions. Nothing that they have leaked or revealed has disturbed me in a deep way."

But McKnight said he doesn't expect he'll ever find any illegal activity or major wrongdoing.

Transparent goal?

So what does he want?

He admits he is a church critic. But as a trained accountant in the age of WikiLeaks, he said broad transparency is his single motivation.

"We only want transparency," McKnight said. "The end goal is simple; it's transparency from the church."

He said he won't publish information of "a personal nature" about church General Authorities but vowed to release anything about their living allowances in the belief that their stipends, as "agents of a non-profit religion, should be disclosed to the public."

His statements about transparency echo Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. For Assange and McKnight, transparency has become the prime mover; they say they are agnostic about what transparency begets, but that claim attracts criticism.

For example, writing Friday for "The Week," William Falk reminded that President Trump championed leaks when WikiLeaks released a stream of embarrassing emails hacked from Democratic officials during the presidential campaign. Now that he faces a tsunami of leaks, the president has called them "un-American."

"Radical transparency certainly sounds noble," Falk wrote, "but I suspect it's a standard no public official, or indeed most of us, could survive. It's so much more convenient to have a double standard: Transparency for thee, but not for me."

Leaks are the distinctly American, added Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute.

"I'm not sure the president completely understands that the First Amendment was created specifically to engineer leaks," she said. "It was banking on the idea that people would be motivated to hold political authority in check."

Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins visited BYU this month. During an interview, she invoked the famous advice on transparency — "If you have to be naked, you better be buff" — in the 2003 book, "The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business."

"I am concerned that things like Wikileaks, it's a very heavy hammer," Watkins said. "It just does one thing. So is there collateral damage? Is it always appropriate? Probably not."

"If you're about transparency," she added, "you're about transparency for both parties."

Amen, said Steve Evans, who doubles as a Salt Lake City attorney and a Mormon blogger at By Common Consent.

"If you want to be transparent, great," Evans said, "be transparent about your vetting process. Do we need a MormonLeaks-Leaks?"

Ethical roles

Ethicists, legal experts and scholars agree there are good leaks — think Watergate — and bad leaks that do significant damage or are motivated by narrow self-interest.

The leak must be worth the betrayal if a leaker is going to share classified or proprietary information or has a specific legal or ethical obligation to keep it secret, wrote Kirk Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University and Jerry Ceppos, former vice president for news at Knight Ridder in an influential article on the ethics of leaks.

A good leak, they said, expands understanding of an issue of public interest without harming anyone. A leak can be good if it harms someone as long as the lives and health are at risk or a crime is being committed or public monies are being misspent.

A bad leak does harm and doesn't aid public understanding of an important public issue. "Self-interest and self-righteousness can cloud the potential leaker's view of the harm a leak may do," they wrote. "It is critical to get another's perspective on what harm will result. It is also inadequate to pass over it too quickly with an attitude that the ends always justify the means."

Mormon Studies scholar Patrick Mason questioned the public good done so far by MormonLeaks, saying its leaks have landed with a resounding thud.

"They haven't revealed anything surprising or particularly newsworthy," he said. "Imagine, there was a memo saying missionaries should call home only on Christmas and Mother's Day. We all know Fawn Brodie was excommunicated."

In the case of church leader compensation, Mason and others inside and outside the church shrugged.

"It's one data point that helps us see that while the compensation is there, it's not extravagant, and full-time church leaders are not getting rich off their church service," Mason said.

Whether a leak is good or bad is the conscience question for each person, said Ann Skeet, Hanson's colleague at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics: "What's the code they are going to live by?"

"It's very fair to ask people to tell you, 'What are the parameters you're using, what are the guidelines you're using to decide these things?' " Skeet added. "It doesn't mean that person has to, but it also doesn't mean anybody has to pay attention to that person. There's plenty of people who post stuff and blog stuff all the time."

McKnight won't reveal who is providing the leaks to him other than to say it is more than one person. In fact, he said he doesn't know who they are. News consumers should consider that, said Kirtley, the Minnesota professor of ethics and law.

"If you're interested in the content, then I think how the organization that posted it got it, might become a relevant issue, because how they got it could raise questions about the authenticity of the article, whether the material was being leaked for motives that might tend to skew your perception of what's there. You might for example get part of something that is not really representative of the whole but could be misconstrued. How do you know that if you can't as a reader judge who the source was who provides the material?"

Vetting and context

That brings the issue back around to transparency.

McKnight said each document is vetted before being released by MormonLeaks, but he won't share specifics about the vetting process. He also told KUER RadioWest's Doug Fabrizio that MormonLeaks doesn't "guarantee 100 percent the authenticity" of its leaks.

Skeet expressed concern about those positions.

"It strikes me as odd to emphasize the transparency of another organization and then not share the parameters he is operating under," she said. "Is he putting up a shingle and saying, 'Send stuff to me?' Is he making clear what code he's following? Are they the ones of professional journalists, or is it a fly-by-night operation?

"It's hard to know what this person's motivations are," Skeet added, "and I'm not sure you can know that, unless the person who actually releases the information is willing to give you that information."

Like Kirtley said, motivation is important to Skeet.

"This person is making decisions for other people," she said. "Whoever is deciding to post the pay stub, that's private information. In my opinion, you'd have to have a pretty compelling reason to put that information out there without that person's permission."

Questions about Russian hacking create grave reason for alarm among journalists handling leaks, who must avoid manipulation, wrote Columbia Journalism Review columnist Joel Simon in August.

Governments like Russia and others are weaponizing information, he said. Journalists must carry out systematic reporting on the source of the leak itself and take time to provide context.

McKnight told the Deseret News he saw himself in the same type of role of a journalist. However, he is not systematically reporting on the sources of MormonLeaks or providing any context for the leaks. For example, this month MormonLeaks published a single-page copy of a one LDS congregation's budget. The document did not say where the congregation is or put it in any context with the 30,000 other LDS wards around the world.

"One source doesn't actually tell you very much without context," said Mormon Studies expert Patrick Mason. "This is true for a journalist or any good scholar, as well. Is the number 100 a small number or a big number? It depends on what that number describes."

Journalists and scholars do more than uncover facts, they interpret them and provide critical analysis and contextualization, said Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

New normal

Skeet said to be fair to MormonLeaks, even journalists are acting like leaking platforms now. After Trump won election in November, the New York Times began to solicit "tips" on the front page of its website. The newspaper provides tools for sources to leak information to the paper without revealing their anonymity.

Other news organizations have followed suit, Fast Company reported on Friday. Some use SecureDrop, created by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, or GlobaLeaks. These tools use encryption and Tor, an anonymizing network. Combined with Tails, a secure operating system, sources can send secret messages and files to reporters without revealing their identities, locations, or IP addresses, Fast Company reported.

Of course, there are significant differences between the White House leaks and MormonLeaks. The editor of "The Intercept," which uses SecureDrop, said the type of leaks her publication has received has changed with Trump.

"I definitely can say that the quality of information is greater," she told Fast Company. "It’s consistently more interesting and in the public interest."

That's not the case with MormonLeaks. McKnight said in a Facebook live event last week that his pipeline is slowing down. That's helpful, he said, because his team has been working fast, and the group failed to redact some information it should have.

Some inside and outside the church are underwhelmed.

'Pretty banal'

Another former Mormon, Rick Phillips, a sociology professor at the University of North Florida, called the revelations in McKnight's information dumps "pretty banal" in an interview with RadioWest.

Phillips also questioned McKnight's motives, saying he'd be mortified if someone uploaded his pay stubs to the Internet.

"I can't see any reason other than to attack the church why you would release the personal pay stubs of Elder Henry B. Eyring," Phillips said. "That seems a little bit gratuitous to me. There's nothing that reveals about the LDS Church that isn't revealed by the general letter talking about the increase in salaries. I don't know; it quacks like a duck."

News organizations have felt the same. After the President Eyring dump, media outlets have ignored what for a month were weekly MormonLeaks dumps.

Still, Phillips, Skeet and others see the appeal of MormonLeaks to a small group — its Facebook page has 4,500 likes, compared to 100,000 for the Facebook page of the junior member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Dale G. Renlund.

Most non-profits now report their financial information as a matter of transparency, Skeet said. Religious organizations broadly do not.

"What you're experiencing or seeing with these releases is a greater hunger for transparency, a shift in social norms," Skeet said.

There's definitely a market for such information, said McBride, the Poynter Institute media ethicist, created by "an opaque organization" that has members who have left it and others who question it.

Watkins, the Enron whistleblower, said the leaks phenomenon is natural.

"It's really a symptom of frustration with people who feel like something's not right, and they've tried to go through channels, but it's not working."

Unintended harm?

Evans, the By Common Consent blogger, called MormonLeaks a form of civil disobedience against the church, but he said he could understand the instinct, too.

"We're all members of the church, so you feel you should have a right to know," he said. "That sounds very democratic, and in keeping with the principles of common consent, which I love. On the other hand, I don't known how you get past the personal ethics of what you're doing.

"What he's doing is trying to encourage people to break their personal ethical commitments."

Notion of the sacred

Welch, the Mormon scholar in St. Louis and mother of four, found herself watching the MormonLeaks' videos of the apostles, interested in seeing them outside scripted situations.

Despite her curiosity, she said she is concerned for church leaders.

"The whole notion of the sacred is this idea that there is something, some special knowledge, some special experience that is set aside, set apart from public eyes, that's private and that's fraternal," she said. "I know that the bonds that they share, the trust that they share as a quorum is deeply personal and deeply fraternal. I think that type of sociality really is threatened by this notion that everything has to be public and that leaks could happen because it erodes the trust, and that trust seems to me so central to the way that they make decisions.

"I really feel for the institutional church and for the Brethren themselves as they try to figure out how to deal with the reality of the Internet, which wants to make everything public and wants to cross every boundary and wants to disseminate everything to everybody, and that as a result wants to dissolve the boundaries that traditionally have upheld our ideas of the sacred. What does revelation mean if it's on videotape? Can revelation be sacred if it's made public, at that moment is made public and disseminated?

"I think these are really tough questions, and I think there's a good case to be made that it can't, that something really is lost when everything is fair game and nothing is set apart."