November 29, 2010 2:25PM

Random Thoughts on WikiLeaks

I’ve fielded some questions today about the WikiLeaks story, and I’m feeling pretty conflicted.

I’m aware of the fact that the leak of classified information could pose a short-term risk to national security, but it is my sense that most of the claims of dire harm are overwrought. There is considerable evidence that much -- perhaps most -- classified material is improperly classified; governments oftentimes invoke claims of secrecy to shield themselves from embarrassment, not to protect national security. In that sense, some diplomats and government officials might be red in the face today, but I doubt that most Americans are feeling less secure than before the latest revelations from WikiLeaks.

If I thought that the attention on minute and often mundane details that shouldn't be classified precipitated a closer look at overclassification, WikiLeaks might have a beneficial side effect. As it is, however, it is likely to increase the government's obsession with secrecy, with policymakers scrambling to close down supposedly dangerous loopholes, some of which were opened up after 9/11 to facilitate information-sharing between agencies. This process of clamping down on interagency collaboration has already begun.

As to the particulars, with respect to diplomatic correspondence, there is a tension between individuals sharing their genuine opinions about another country, or that country's leaders, and concern that their candid assessments in private conversations be revealed. People do keep secrets from one another, including their friends, spouses and family members. It is basic human nature. And it is basic human nature to clam up the next time you’re talking to a friend who recently blabbed your secrets to a third party. As such, the WikiLeaks episode might have a chilling effect on candor, but I believe that this effect will dissipate over time.

Concern that this will undermine U.S. diplomatic standing, or otherwise lead people to question the U.S. government’s capacity for conducting foreign policy, is misplaced. We don’t (or shouldn’t) question the U.S. Army’s ability to conduct military operations because of the occasional friendly fire incident. Given the volume of documents released in now several Wikileaks’ rounds, some might ask whether this is the equivalent of many thousands of unfortunate incidents, and therefore a sign of a systemic failure. I doubt it. The vast majority of individuals in possession of classified material treat this information with great care. More to the point, I am confident that this will be a minor episode in U.S. diplomatic history when compared to huge blunders such as the war in Iraq and the deepening -- and open-ended -- war in Afghanistan.

The WikiLeaks case also touches on the law, and of an individual's responsibility to obey such laws, two of my least favorite subjects. Not all laws are sacrosanct, and I've just noted that much classified material shouldn't be. As such, some might claim that releasing such information is a legitimate form of civil disobedience, because the laws governing release of documents are unjust.

But I don't think that overclassification and other resorts to secrecy to shield the government from public scrutiny are on par with far more egregious violations of the basic rights and liberties of all citizens. If I could be convinced otherwise, I might change my mind.

For now, because I don't trust individual leakers to be able to discern which material is legitimately classified, and which is not, I believe that individuals who possess classified material and knowingly release it to people not cleared for such information should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Finally, as a practical matter, I am particularly leery of individuals passing judgment on when to follow the rules, and when to ignore them, in cases involving national security. We rightly condemn military officers who defy civilian authority over the conduct of war. We should be equally critical of people who choose to go their own way in the conduct of information warfare. People with access to classified material have chosen to work in the government. They therefore choose to abide by the government's rules, and should expect to pay a penalty if they violate them.