Those of us who were born in 1971 share the dubious distinction of having come into this world at the advent of the “leaking is cool” gestalt that today threatens our democracy as much as any unpopular or untrendy policy decision.

Daniel Ellsberg who, as an analyst at the RAND Corp. with access to classified Defense Department information, leaked “the Pentagon Papers” to The New York Times. Because the Vietnam War was “uncool,” Ellsberg was a hero as the prevailing winds at the time suggested.

The United States government did not agree and two years later charged Ellsberg with treason. Leonard Boudin, a leading light of the Left, took on Ellsberg’s case and managed to get the charges dropped. (By sheer coincidence, Boudin’s daughter Kathy died last week after serving 20 years in prison for second degree murder in the politically charged 1981 Brink’s armored car robbery; her son Chesa is the current district attorney in San Francisco.)

Our lesson from all this appears to be “If your aims are noble, you may be shielded from culpability for leaking — provided you are leaking against the uncool.” It is a weird lesson that never seemed to totally apply to Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning or Julian Assange. Recall, it was the famously cool President Obama who said “I’m not going to scramble the jets over this guy (Snowden),” but then did.

By chance, I was present when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the first public comments about WikiLeaks. Stranger still, it was in Kazakhstan. The wife of a jailed newspaper editor had just implored Clinton to raise her husband’s case with the authoritarian leader of the country she was to meet the following day. The editor was charged with leaking national security sensitive information.

Without missing a beat, a pro-government journalist shot up her hand and asked, in perfect English: “Madam Secretary, would you not agree that in light of the troubling leaks from your department that it is appropriate for government to punish such actions in the interest of the nation?” Clinton’s answer was not heroic, but I won’t waste time on that now.

The same year the U.S. government failed to secure a conviction against Ellsberg (1973), another, higher-profile legal case seized the nation: Roe v. Wade. The prospect that it might be overturned in the near future was enough to spark a recent, high-level leak of Associate Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion and, of course, last week was largely about the fallout of all that.

Lacking a pair of ovaries, I am careful to keep my opinions about the matter at the heart of Roe v. Wade to myself. Moreover, that is not the issue here. As with Ellsberg, the question becomes whether the leak should be excused because it exposed something we may believe we are entitled to see, making us sympathetic, if not grateful, to the leaker.

Recall the young CIA “whistle-blower” who sparked the first impeachment of Trump based on his alleged knowledge of conversations to which he wasn’t even a party. Tremendous effort was paid to keeping him out of the public eye because, well, he was doing the right thing for deep and unalloyed patriotic motives. We still don’t know the identity of this hero of the Republic, which is a shame because it robs us of the chance to lay laurels at his feet.

I am being sarcastic.

Washington’s leaking culture is a disease, and it is sapping the roots of our democratic institutions. Not only are the necessarily private inner working of places like the Pentagon and the Supreme Court exposed in a way intended to thwart policy, but a new generation of sniveling, secretive and self-righteous (and unelected) public servants entrusted with sensitive information are empowered to make decisions for the rest of us. While transparency may be a democratic feature, what I am describing is not. Often, it is a crime – for good reason.

Reading Kathy Boudin’s hagiographic obituary in the Washington Post the other day, I was struck with an unsettling thought: The laws don’t necessarily apply to “cool people.” Although Snowden, Manning and Assange are at odds with the Department of Justice, each has a following. It’s just tough to know whether they’d creepy or cool, which keeps a question mark over each.

It is impossible to celebrate leaking without also believing that our government is fundamentally broken, making it necessary to betray one’s trust in it. If indeed that’s where we are today, we are in serious trouble.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.